With `Smarty,' Maryland has shot at slots

May 13, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IT WAS SCARY, staring into the fabled stall that held Smarty Jones after his arrival at Pimlico. Did he or didn't he have a "Legalize Slots Now!" patch slapped onto his glistening chestnut hindquarters?

With jockeys now free to advertise products and propaganda on their pant legs, there's little reason to think the big star of this Triple Crown season couldn't be asked to serve as an equine billboard.

We can all relax. As of yesterday, no advertisement for slots was detected anywhere on Smarty Jones' body, but it was early. The 129th Preakness was still three days away -- plenty of time for some joker to figure out a way to make literal what Smarty Jones already symbolizes.

He's not a horse. He's a crusade -- at least in Pennsylvania, which figures it now has the momentum, i.e. Smarty Jones, in its movement to legalize slots. Just read the latest edition of the House Democratic Weekly Message out of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

"Smarty Jones may not know it, but his efforts on the track could soon lead to more jobs and lower property taxes for Pennsylvanians," it read.

"Thousands of jobs and a billion dollars worth of state-funded property tax relief: That's what Pennsylvanians would get if lawmakers are given the chance to vote on legislation that would allow slots at Pennsylvania's racetracks and at least four other destination points.

"Along with providing $1 billion in property tax cuts [which would help more seniors stay in their homes and help working families afford their first home], the measure would boost the state's horse racing industry and enhance economic growth in general."

It should be enough of a thrill for a horse to win the Derby. That much was clear just from watching Smarty Jones' former car dealer and septuagenarian owner, Roy Chapman, nearly pass out in his Churchill Downs box on May 1.

A smoker whose emphysema has disabled him, a small-time owner whose friend and trainer was murdered, Chapman emanated vibes as an instant made-for-TV movie upon Smarty Jones' Derby win.

That's one reason Smarty Jones serves as a enticing poster horse for racing. He's a Pennsylvania-bred and Philadelphia Park-based horse of the people. He's a thoroughbred that ordinary folk who aren't sheiks or blue bloods can relate to.

As of yesterday, at least some semblance of "purity" remained at Stall 40. Smarty Jones, the Kentucky Derby winner, munched hay, affectionately rubbed noses with stablemate Butterscotch, and waited for his afternoon bath.

"He attacks horses when he goes on the track. I can't fathom anyone going by him," assistant trainer Bill Foster said, shaking his head in genuine admiration of a horse that oddsmakers made the 8-5 favorite for Saturday's Preakness.

Yesterday, Smarty Jones stood directly under an impressive sign that lists all Preakness winners that had previously occupied stall 40.

Too bad Smarty Jones' name may become more synonymous with a campaign that has nothing to do with racing history, but seems to spell racing's future.

"We've been praying for slots. This is our best chance," Sal Sinatra, director of racing for Philadelphia Park, said on the day Smarty Jones' Pennsylvania connections were awarded a $5 million bonus for going undefeated through the Derby.

State senators in Pennsylvania have estimated that total purses at Philadelphia Park could jump from $25 million to as much as $100 million with slots, unabashedly looking for Smarty Jones to be the catalyst for the slots movement.

"If we don't get slots [in Pennsylvania], we're going to be forced to go somewhere else," said John Servis, Smarty Jones' trainer. Servis said he has had owners who have wanted to send him horses to train but didn't because they couldn't make enough money at Philadelphia Park.

"If they don't get slots, I don't see any of the racetracks in Pennsylvania making it."

Now that slots proponents there have strengthened their case with a poster horse, Maryland can't afford to stand by and watch Pennsylvania join Delaware and West Virginia as slots destinations. That would further siphon money out of the state.

Maryland's status is already alarming. Not one of Pimlico's purses was more than $24,000 yesterday -- most at $7,000 and $14,000. That was four days before the Preakness, the biggest racing week of the year.

At the other two Triple Crown venues -- although they are not slots states either -- the purses were by far richer. At Belmont, seven out of nine races yesterday had purses of more than $24,000 -- going as high as $60,000. Likewise, Churchill Downs was offering five out of 10 races of more than $24,000, with a high of $63,000.

In the wake of the General Assembly's inability to bring forth a slots bill during the last session, and with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. this week rejecting a call for a special session or referendum on slots, Maryland continues to walk the gangplank down horse industry inferiority.

Yesterday, as he was called to the stakes barn by trainer Nick Zito to examine what Zito thought were swarms of termites, Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of Maryland's racetracks, couldn't help but understand the bad metaphor.

"We need new barns. We need a lot of things," he said.

What Maryland racing enthusiasts may need is for Smarty Jones to honor his favored-colt status, win the Preakness and keep the hype rolling into the Belmont. If Smarty Jones helps bring slots to Pennsylvania, the pressure will be on in Maryland.

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