Time to breed new thinking, get politicians' help

Horse Racing

September 18, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

BRINGING SLOTS to Maryland was originally all about helping the horse racing industry. Remember when the issue was that simple?

It has since become far more complex, with no resolution in sight after last week's collapse of yet another attempt to broker a political agreement.

The horse racing industry would be wise just to forget about it and devise another strategy for reinvigorating itself.

Barring some sort of mediation, slots obviously aren't coming here anytime soon, if ever.

The racing industry, caught in the middle, can't afford to wait any longer.

It needs to focus on fixing up its own house rather than continuing to lobby for slots.

And the politicians entrenched on either side of the stalemate need to recognize they're causing harm and do something to help.

They say they care. Let's see them prove it.

If they can't agree to bring slots to Maryland, how about agreeing on a generous purse subsidy?

The last time the General Assembly acted on that issue, in 2001, it took away $6.2 million from the purses annually awarded at the state's tracks. That hurt.

Yes, the industry had it coming then, as the infighting among the various groups was even more shrill than usual.

But times have changed and the state's racing scene needs help to compete with neighboring states that have slots at their tracks.

It needs that $6.2 million back and a whole lot more.

Additional purse money is all the industry needs from slots, but whether that money comes from slots, a subsidy or heaven is irrelevant.

Slots don't offer racing anything else, as the gambling emporiums attached to tracks in other states aren't growing new fans. Most customers leave without seeing a horse.

In that sense, slots are indeed just a short-term fix, for without new fans, racing is doomed to continue its downward spiral.

The states where the sport is most successful - Kentucky, California, New York and Florida - don't have slots at their major tracks, although they're trying.

But Maryland racing has become fixated on them because Delaware and West Virginia have them and Pennsylvania is about to power up 61,000 machines.

How ridiculous is it that the tracks in these states are competing with each other rather than working together to save their struggling sport?

Talk about a business that needs revenue sharing.

It's no wonder Maryland's politicians are loathe to provide too much assistance.

There are other problems, too; earlier this week, the Maryland Racing Commission lectured the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Laurel and Pimlico, about everything from construction delays to security cutbacks to apathetic customer service.

Put simply, things are a mess.

Maybe the slots debate has distracted the track operators, but it's time for them to get back to their first priority, fixing up the tracks and putting on a quality show.

Magna has insisted it is committed to Maryland racing with or without slots. Let's see them back up that claim.

Let's see them start spending significantly, even though slots aren't coming, just as Churchill Downs did with its $121 million facelift of the track where the Kentucky Derby is held.

Rebuilding the racing surfaces at Laurel is a positive step, but it's just a start.

Maryland racing still has a lot going for it with the Preakness Stakes, a matchless history and a sizable in-state constituency. Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania can't touch that combination.

The time has come to rely on those assets rather than the fading dream of slots.

Sell the sport. Attract new customers. Work the room.

Of course, the chances of making substantive gains remain small as long as Michael E. Busch is the speaker of the House of Delegates.

He recently told The Sun's Tom Keyser that he was a "sports fan" who would "hate" to see harm come to an industry with a "tremendous tradition." But he also told The Washington Post last December that the age of the horse player was "deceased" and asked, "If the Preakness wasn't here, would anybody care?"

Busch cares a lot less about racing than about being perceived as the guy responsible if the sport dies here.

He wasn't wrong when he told Keyser racing people aren't the only people hurting in Maryland.

He also wasn't wrong for saying the industry deserves its share of the blame.

But the industry employs too many people, generates too much business and is just too important to wither away because of what Busch thinks.

If Busch and the other politicians deign to help, and Magna commits more of its millions to substantively improving matters, good things can still happen without slots.

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