Horse racing is state's friend, not enemy

Horse Racing

April 15, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IT'S TRIPLE CROWN season, and the mood in this second-jewel city is, how shall we say, interesting. Who'll win the Kentucky Derby, then sweep into Baltimore with all the hype and expectations worthy of those 101,000 spectators and NBC's live broadcast?

Of course, the Preakness will be run May 15 at Pimlico. It's one of the oldest sporting traditions in the country, put on by the oldest sports club in America - the Maryland Jockey Club, which dates to 1743. That doesn't mean there's not a frustrated constituency starting to wonder if Maryland doesn't need a serious dose of shock treatment.

Note to Annapolis from Northwest Baltimore, where tired, old Pimlico looms as the symbol of the tired, old debate over slots: Maybe horse racing in Maryland won't be yours to finally kill.

"There are people in the industry who are beginning to say what Magna needs to do is threaten the legislature," Timothy Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said yesterday.

In other words: Threaten to move the Preakness; threaten to sell valuable land at Pimlico, Laurel Park and Bowie to real estate developers and force Maryland to consider what it would look like without its Super Bowl of horse racing.

Someone might care about horse racing then.

There is no word yet from Magna Entertainment - owner of Pimlico, Laurel and the Preakness - that it is thinking of doing anything like this. All along, Magna said it has plans for Pimlico and Maryland horse racing, whether or not there are slots.

"To the contrary, both [the Maryland Jockey Club] and [Magna] are, and always have been, committed to the revitalization of historic Pimlico Race Course, the traditional and rightful home of the world famous Preakness Stakes ... [which Magna would like to restore] to its historic grandeur," Magna said in a release reported in The Blood-Horse magazine last week.

That sort of good PR speak and high-ground stance - along with a stated willingness to help revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding Pimlico via track and "racino" renovations and the $117 million investment in the Maryland tracks by Magna - should have predisposed the legislature to view Magna as a potential partner in economic development.

The state didn't agree to build stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens to take over the baseball and football franchises. It seems far-reaching for it to think it can run horse tracks, even if the slots money is good.

In this way, the state keeps dumping on horse racing. And Lord knows we don't need more of that.

"We're in a peculiar industry. There's a body of laws about a foot thick controlling what we can do. If we're there a lot [in Annapolis], it's because we have to be there," Capps said.

Perhaps we should have been more cautious when Magna purchased Maryland horse racing in 2002. The state was looking for Magna to do in a few months what had not been done by track owners over the past couple of decades. The poor relationship between the track owners and state legislators has done little to advance racing's cause.

In fact, the exact opposite is true. Horse racing is cast as a lost cause or, worse, as a cabal of opportunists looking to line their pockets with gambling money the state would prefer to control.

It's an understandable position of suspicion, given the budget crisis that looms over the state. The 2006 budget will be a bear to balance, which should put slots in play - soon.

That means it is not do-or-die for Maryland horse racing at this exact moment, not until Magna chairman Frank Stronach says he's done with his dream.

Stronach's vision - call it impressive or call it nuts - is to revitalize horse racing through a syndicate of tracks across the United States, Canada and Europe. There would be slots where slots are legal, Internet and simulcast betting everywhere. It's a speculative move on the part of a racing lover who has a passion for horses and sees an opportunity.

Stronach owns 15 tracks, some of them the most prestigious in the industry. For $117 million, Magna bought the Maryland Jockey Club, adding Pimlico and Laurel to its extensive holdings.

Love slots or loathe them, it's fairly certain they are a necessary evil for horse racing. The pressure is on in Maryland because West Virginia and Delaware have slots at their tracks, leading to a boom in the physical facilities, attendance and purses.

New York recently opened slots gambling at Saratoga's harness track. The stakes are massively higher in states such as Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and, now, Texas, where a conservative governor is, out of the blue, talking about one-armed bandits as a source of revenue at Lone Star.

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