Slots cast shadow on sunny opening day

After 3rd legislative loss, Pimlico railbirds, officials lament dwindling crowds

Opening Day At Pimlico

April 21, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Life couldn't get much better for Margaret Runk right now, here at the Pimlico Race Course on an unseasonably warm opening day.

It's only 2:30 p.m. and already she's won $290 from a lottery ticket and a few hundred more betting on the horses whizzing around the track.

Luck is on her side today. If only ...

"Slots," the 62-year-old Fells Point resident says dreamily. "You'd have a lot of retired people like us coming here more. Everyone we know goes to Atlantic City [N.J.] and Charles Town [W.Va.]."

"It would be nice to be able to do both," pipes in her husband, Robert, 68. "She likes the slots. I like the horse racing."

From the lifelong Fells Point couple to the retired post office employee to the two old men smoking cigars and trading horse tips on the second floor of the grandstand, the consensus was clear.

Horse racing season was back, Pimlico was open for business, and that alone was enough to lure more than 5,400 fans to the track on a workday. But the disappointment lingered. For the third consecutive year, a deal to land slot machines at Pimlico and other tracks was defeated, tangled in a mess of politics and personalities.

And with lawmakers saying slots won't appear on the legislative agenda next year - an election year - the chances of hearing the clink of coins and pull of levers at Maryland racetracks are at least several years away.

"Not having slots here has been a big downfall for us," said Dale Capuano, a leading Maryland trainer in charge of about 70 horses. "We're having to cut days and races. That trend will continue. I don't think racing will die, but the days are dwindling down."

While many spectators say they prefer wagering on horses to playing slots, nearly all said the machines are a necessity in an age in which a withering sport and industry is losing ground to slots-rich tracks in other states.

To hear it from those in the horse-racing industry, these are trying times.

But yesterday, officials from Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, were putting on their best face.

Yes, slots failed again. Yes, they're very disappointed. Yes, they worry about their future.

But with the kickoff to the Preakness - the crown-jewel race at Pimlico - a little more than a month away, they couldn't be anything but excited. Right?

"We're focused on having a great opening day here today, and we have great expectations for Maryland racing," said James L. Gagliano, Magna's executive vice president of racing in Maryland.

"We are not contemplating selling," he added. "We're disappointed with the legislature, and it will be difficult to confront our competition without electronic gaming, but we're not for sale."

Gagliano noted that in the past 2 1/2 years, Magna has invested about $38 million in capital improvements at its Maryland tracks. But the bulk of that money, he acknowledged, has poured into Laurel.

Pimlico has received about one-third of those funds, with improvements made to the landscaping, the dining facilities and the Jockey Club and Sports Palace.

Still, many patrons yesterday grumbled about what they say are outdated, drab and deteriorating facilities.

"They're not going to improve the place until they get the slots," says Charles Thornton, 69, of East Baltimore.

Thornton is one of the old-timers, a retired Greyhound maintenance supervisor who has been coming to the track since 1969, and nearly every day since he retired in 1999.

He has developed his own community here, 15 guys that today are huddled around him at the simulcast display, watching races across the country.

Still, he pines for the old days, when racing magnate Frank J. DeFrancis, who died in 1989, would rub shoulders with the everyday folks, and the bleachers were packed with avid horse fans. "On a day like today, you couldn't get in the door," Thornton says wistfully.

Slots, he agrees, would help bring people back.

But, he adds, "I don't think anything could turn it around completely." Old-timers such as Thornton believe that most of those drawn to slots will not be the ones that get a buzz from watching the blur of colors and horses whiz by. No, they will likely stick to the slots and rarely venture outside.

But they will be there. And that is half the battle, says Capuano, the horse trainer, surveying the half-empty bleachers.

"There are probably a lot of slots players who will get tired of that," he says, "and then cross over to horse racing. We just have to get them here."

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