A new course

September 09, 2005

OFFICIALS AT Magna Entertainment Corp. say it would be "foolish and irresponsible" to continue conducting business as usual at their Maryland racetracks. We couldn't agree more.

The company has decided to trim the number of racing days at Laurel and Pimlico from 196 to 112 next year. By cutting losses and funneling money into fewer - but larger - purses, the tracks are likely to attract higher quality entrants. That should increase attendance and simulcasting revenue. Maryland's horsemen may face fewer days at the track but they are likely to be more profitable. There are always reasons to be skeptical of this company's motives, of course, but this particular move appears to be a reasonable business decision.

But thanks to the usual doomsayers, Magna's plan has been seized upon as a complete disaster that only slots can reverse. We don't blame Magna's owner for salivating over the potential jackpot of slots (the Canadian company doesn't have to worry about the consequences of dramatically expanded gambling for Maryland). But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are the ones driving the horse industry to ruin by steering this course so blindly. If any voter doubts the influence of gambling's deep pockets on Annapolis - or the recklessness of irrational intransigence as a political strategy - these two provide proof on a too-reliable basis.

Mr. Ehrlich says the plan puts Maryland one step closer to losing the Preakness - even as Magna contends the reverse. Both he and Mr. Miller blame House Speaker Michael E. Busch for refusing to face reality. Yet it is Mr. Miller who refused to even consider the slots bill that passed the House last session, a proposal that would have established fewer machines at fewer locations and subjected the process to competitive bidding. If anything killed slots this year, it was the ineptitude and greed of a handful of people. For them, it's not enough to have slot machines underwriting the horse industry, it has to be on a scale and circumstance that directs an extraordinary level of profit to a relative few.

Are we concerned about the health of Maryland racing? Absolutely. The tracks, particularly Pimlico, have endured too many years of mismanagement and neglect for even the hardiest racing fan to endure. But we've also learned from the experience of other states that slots are a costly and failed strategy. Recently in New Mexico, which has tried to revive racing with slots, a track owner sued to get fewer racing dates - actual horse racing is a drag on the company's casino profits. Is that where all this is headed? Now that's depressing news.

Magna's management may have lied about the company's willingness to invest in a Pimlico that's not stuffed with thousands of slot machines, but at least it's trying something new. Over the years, Maryland racing has gotten plenty of government handouts. If the sport is to continue to be viable, Magna has to find a better way to do business, and reducing racing days may be a first step on this more sensible path.

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