The uncomfortable facts of slots' defeat

April 16, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TEN MINUTES inside Pimlico Race Course, whom do I bump into, expertly marking up his racing form, checking the track conditions and the less-than-heavenly weather, but my rabbi.

"You know how it is after Passover," he says, lifting his eyes from his program, where he is calculating the odds with religious fervor. "You need to unwind a little."

"Certainly," I say, with equal piety. "Who do you like in the first race?"

"Just don't put my name in the paper."

"Certainly not."

So I won't put his name in the paper if he won't mention my attendance in synagogue, slightly lax since the second Eisenhower administration.

But I wish to make a point about my rabbi's attendance at a gambling event: He is not alone. The last time I went to Laurel, I waited in the betting line behind several nuns. Gambling is a great ecumenical sport, in which all pleas for heavenly intervention are met with fine impartiality. But we are now in the aftermath of the legislative defeat of slot machines, in which the argument was made that gambling is offensive, and maybe even immoral, and certainly no way for the state of Maryland to balance its financial books.

I will mention these arguments to my rabbi the next time we meet in synagogue or the betting line, and also to the nuns the next time we meet at the $2 window.

I am no particular fan of slots, which are a sucker's game, and I am no particular fan of gambling. But uncomfortable facts remain as we stride through the ghost town that is Pimlico Race Course now that the General Assembly has adjourned and left slots dead on the floor.

It is hypocritical for a state to trumpet certain forms of gambling -- lottery games, horse racing -- while calling other forms a plague on humanity. It is financially suicidal to let millions of Maryland dollars slip away to tracks in neighboring states. And it is crippling an industry that employs thousands of people in this state, who hear horse racing referred to as the sport of kings and realize, cynically, that royalty ain't what it used to be.

For here we are, at empty Pimlico this week, with Noon Time Dancer galloping to victory in the first race. On an overcast day, there are not many people in the lower grandstand. By actual count, I see five. That is not a misprint.

"And three of us don't want to be here," says one of them, Gilbert Porras. He is a title insurance representative from Downey, Calif., visiting his son, who studies at Georgetown. This close to Baltimore, he figured, what the hell, why not visit historic Pimlico? Some history lesson.

Between races, scattered before a bank of 16 big-screen TVs, about a dozen guys watch a simulcast out of Gulfstream Park. They're studying racing forms. They're numb to an announcer's voice, full of forced thrill-of-a-lifetime enthusiasm, describing victory by a horse named Alphabet Soup.

Nobody's cheering. At Pimlico, what's to cheer?

"You here to write the obit for this place?" asks Hank Greenberg. He's retired from the Social Security Administration and comes here a few times a week. "That's what this is, isn't it? The death of it all."

This is the common perception in the aftermath of slots going down. Weekdays, say people who work here, they're lucky to see a thousand spectators. Weekends, double that. In the main dining room, they serve 50 to 75 customers on weekdays. Weekends, maybe double. At the slightly more exclusive Sports Palace and Jockey Club, they average about 80 people a day. Weekends, maybe double.

"Without slots," says horse owner Tony Dee, "racing's dead in Maryland. Dead, in five years. Ten, tops."

"Ten, tops," agrees owner Charlie Frock. He and Dee stand here in the gloomy Pimlico interior, in a large area so empty that individual sound travels the length of it. "As a horseman, I don't know what they're thinking in Annapolis. Delaware Park was dying, and now they're printing money. Charles Town was dying, and they're making millions."

In Maryland, though, the talk goes this way: First, Pimlico's owners, Magna Entertainment Corp., will take the only prize they have -- the Preakness Stakes -- and move it to one of its other tracks. Sound preposterous? So did moving that other prized horse, the Baltimore Colts.

Second, that the owners will realize: This is a losing proposition that is only getting worse, so let's shut the whole thing down. Sound preposterous? Check the "crowds" at Pimlico. It's mostly a geriatric set. It's decades now since the thinkers who run horse racing bothered to cultivate new generations of fans.

Around here, young people show up for the Preakness and then disappear. The track takes a loss for all but one racing date and attempts to make it up with one big day. Slots would help. But the racing game's running out of time.

At the Maryland Jockey Club's Hall of Fame Room, you get a feel for the sport's past. There's Seabiscuit racing War Admiral. But it's 1938. There's a News-Post from May 9, 1945, the day after V-E Day. A front-page headline reads: "Yanks Capture Goering," the Nazi war criminal. But that's not the biggest story. Above everything, the headline reads: "Pimlico Will Open Meet May 16."

It's been a long time since racing got that kind of billing. And it didn't need slots to prop it up.

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