Let horse racing fade gracefully into hobby status

June 10, 2005|By Brad Lyman

THE CANADIAN owner of Pimlico is threatening to move the Preakness unless the state grants it substantial slot machine largess.

Marylanders are told that Pimlico is profitable only one day a year, so slot machines are required to subsidize Maryland horse racing. Most of the partiers in the Preakness infield last month didn't come for the race, so let's stipulate that horse racing is unprofitable 365 days each year.

It has not always been so. In the 19th century, Maryland depended on horses and sailing vessels. Horses pulled our carriages and our freight wagons and delivered our coal, ice and milk. The wealthy indulged themselves with luxurious stables, matched teams and ornate rigs. Young men debated equine merits and recklessly raced them for recreation and bragging rights.

Similarly, our skipjacks dredged oysters, racing to market and for pleasure. But in the later 20th century, Americans spurned horses, falling head over heels in love with automobiles.

Sailors and horse lovers still indulge their passions, but average Americans no longer pay to watch horse racing, although millions do pay to watch NASCAR races. No pari-mutuel betting or slots are needed to subsidize the NASCAR circuit. Let's be honest: We've jilted horses for cars.

Horse racing and the Preakness are glorious Maryland traditions, but before our leaders make a Faustian bargain with Magna Entertainment Corp., we need to admit that horse racing as spectator sport is no longer a viable business.

It is the gambling that circles the corporate vultures over struggling racetracks and Indian reservations. Betting on a horse race is an exhilarating and time-honored tradition, but slot machines at racetracks are a tawdry prostitution of horse racing heritage.

That a foreign conglomerate now holds the Preakness hostage for slots revenue shows Magna's true colors. Magna is no more committed to Maryland horse racing than the uninterested slots players who turn their backs on horse races across the nation.

Rest assured that when slots don't meet Magna's revenue estimates, it will demand additional gambling revenues. As long as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley consider paying Magna's slot machine ransom, they only feed the beast. The governor should accept the General Assembly's three-time verdict and declare slots dead. This would end the extortion. Once Magna saw no slots revenue on the horizon, it would lose interest and the state could purchase Pimlico and the Preakness.

Horse racing is no more a viable spectator sport than Maryland's world-class sailing or lacrosse. Once we accept that realty, we are freed to restructure the Preakness as an eternal nonprofit Maryland event. Maryland's sailors recognize their 19th-century staple is now a hobby. They spend millions of dollars on their recreation, employ thousands in the sailing industry and often raise funds for charity.

Owning, breeding and training glorious horses is a wonderful, if expensive, hobby. And, like sailing, it can employ thousands. If Maryland's horse racing community wants to avoid becoming a sleazy sideshow to the gambling industry, it if wants to retain its integrity and autonomy, then it must give up the false promise of slots and transform itself from a failing business to a successful hobby.

Brad Lyman is professor of sociology at Baltimore City Community College and sails the Chesapeake Bay.

Columnist Trudy Rubin took the day off.

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