Racing needs a plan

September 11, 2005

MARYLAND'S SHRINKING horse racing season has prompted much talk about the need for government intervention. One imagines there may even be average citizens who, upon reading of these events, decide that they really ought to patronize Pimlico or Laurel racetracks some evening soon.

The trouble is, they can't. Maryland bans thoroughbred racing at night. That's right; the Average Joe, who generally finds himself working at 1 p.m. on weekdays, is out of luck. Is this any way to run a business?

We broach the subject of the night-racing ban - a long-standing practice meant to protect harness tracks - because it's just one example of how Maryland desperately needs a reasonable plan to deal with the industry's woes. For far too long, slot machines have been touted as the only possible cure. Not only is this wrong, but it ignores the industry's fundamental problems.

Maryland racing is worth saving. The breeding, training, and care of horses and the operation of racetracks is a multibillion-dollar business. It is a Maryland tradition on par with blue crabs and lacrosse; thousands of jobs, from concession workers to veterinarians, are dependent on it.

Last week, officials at Magna Entertainment Corp. revealed plans to reduce the number of racing days at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park next year. At first blush, this sounds disastrous. But it's actually a decision that was overdue. Shrinking the schedule can enlarge purses, which attracts better competition and attendance. It's no coincidence that historic Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., with its modest 32-day schedule offers the biggest purses in the country. And there isn't a single slot machine to be found there.

If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sees the plan as a death knell for the Preakness, he's got it all wrong. What he should be more concerned about is Magna's decision to sell its training facility in Bowie to a private developer. Without adequate stables, the value of racing to Maryland is greatly diminished. One possible answer: Create new stables to accommodate thoroughbreds at the proposed Maryland Horse Park, the multipurpose equine showplace that may be built in Cecil or Anne Arundel counties. That plan should move forward now.

Legislators are already exploring the possibility of new government subsidies for racing. The state has a long history of such handouts; however, before any more are dispensed, Mr. Ehrlich, lawmakers and horse industry leaders need to coalesce behind a single vision for racing's revival that does not depend on slot machines. Night racing, a major renovation of Pimlico, adding other forms of entertainment to tracks, better off-track betting facilities, and investments in new technology all deserve consideration.

This will not be an easy task. It will require overcoming historic differences within the horse industry. But such a meeting of the minds is long overdue. The General Assembly's repeated rejection of slots doesn't doom Maryland racing, but a failure to explore better ways to assist the industry will.

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