New dawn for racing?

Slots Legislation

Money would be major boon, but racing also needs to help itself

February 26, 2005|By John Eisenberg

THE POLITICAL wrangling over slots is far from over, but yesterday's successful vote in the House of Delegates moves them closer than ever before to becoming a reality.

Despite the initial cool reaction from the horse racing industry, the vote could be good news. Maryland racing desperately needs the money for purses and racetrack improvements.

But the potential arrival of slots also represents a challenge.

One of the main reasons it has taken this long for legislators to agree on slots is they plainly distrust the state's racing industry, which, in their eyes, spends more time bickering than helping itself - not an incorrect assessment, by the way.

The influx of hundreds of millions would obviously provide a huge boost, but the industry needs to recognize that money alone won't solve all of its problems.

It still needs to do a better job of selling itself, finding new customers and most of all, coexisting.

It needs to prove it can help itself instead of just relying on slots to stimulate a revival.

It needs to remember that while slots translate into revenue, they don't necessarily produce new racing fans - studies have shown that many slots-pullers never even see a horse, even when sitting in an emporium adjacent to a track.

Yes, slots money would give Maryland a chance to put on a competitive racing product that attracts new fans (and brings back some old ones). With as much as $100 million more in purses to hand out every year, the state would no longer lose quality horses to Delaware and West Virginia, where the tracks already have slots.

The idea of Maryland losing horses to Delaware Park and Charles Town was preposterous until a few years ago, but that is the new reality in this region. And no one blames Maryland horsemen for eschewing Pimlico and Laurel to run elsewhere for more money. Business is business.

But an average day at the races in Maryland would improve immeasurably if slots sent purses soaring. Horsemen would stay home. Fields would grow.

Whether the industry can take advantage of that is another story.

Various horsemen's groups, breeders and thoroughbred and harness track operators have long operated on different pages. That needs to end.

And Magna, the Canadian corporation that owns Laurel and Pimlico, has a spotty history of invigorating tracks. It may also still have to compete for a slots license here. Presumably, it would get one.

But under the House bill passed yesterday, only Laurel would have slots. The pro-slots forces had to give up on Pimlico in order to win key votes from Baltimore legislators yesterday.

Everything is still on the table as lawmakers now attempt to reconcile the different slots bills passed by the House and Senate, but Pimlico is almost certainly out as a venue.

This tilts the heart of Maryland's thoroughbred scene even farther away from Baltimore, where it once resided. Laurel would be the centerpiece as the major beneficiary of slots-fueled enhancements.

What does that mean for Pimlico's future? Some of the new money for purses and track enhancements surely would still go there, but would it be enough to revive the historic track?

The guess here is Pimlico would receive modest improvements and become the site of just one racing meeting a year, a short spring meeting built around the Preakness.

Otherwise, Maryland horses would race the rest of the year at Laurel, enabling the track to draw fans from Washington as well as Baltimore.

That actually makes sense given that more than 100,000 spectators already attend the Triple Crown race every year despite Pimlico's shabby condition. The Preakness is fine as is; the least of Magna's concerns.

Bringing some sparkle to the other 364 days of the racing year has long been the problem in Maryland, and if Magna wants to focus on doing that at Laurel, so be it. Defending Pimlico is, at this point, impossible.

Laurel might not have Pimlico's tradition, but it has spectacular new racing surfaces and the potential to be a more attractive facility. Magna has already spent money on upgrades. It needs to spend a lot more.

The goal should be to attract a Breeders' Cup to Laurel, an honor long overdue in a state as into racing as Maryland.

Problems here have enabled lesser racing venues such as Toronto and Dallas to jump ahead of Maryland and host racing's biggest event. That needs to be corrected.

But it's never going to happen until Maryland erases its national reputation as a once-proud racing state experiencing hard times.

The absence of slots perpetuated that, and now, conversely, the arrival of slots could brighten the state's image.

The racing industry should view the opportunity as a challenge, not as salvation.

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