Seeking greener pastures

Fourth year of failure for gambling bill has members of racing industry looking to states with bigger purses


When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office four years ago, horse trainers like Eddie Gaudet hoped the Republican would quickly deliver on his campaign pledge to bring slot machines to Maryland's tracks and - in their opinion - keep the state's racing industry competitive with those in other states.

But with this week's failure of gambling legislation in the Maryland General Assembly, Gaudet is considering leaving the state altogether. He recently rented 20 stalls and an apartment in Delaware.

"There's more opportunity in Delaware," Gaudet said. "I hate the thought of leaving, but I have no alternative."

In the tight-knit racing community of Laurel Park, trainers, owners and fans who gathered this week said they're frustrated by the past four years of gambling debates and fear that Maryland's horse industry will eventually die without funding from slots.

With prices for horses soaring to as much as $500,000, owners want to run for more substantial prizes than those awarded at Maryland tracks, Gaudet said. He estimates that tracks with slots in Delaware and West Virginia offer purses 40 percent greater than those in Maryland.

"Each year that we don't get slots passed is the year that one more stallion leaves the state, one more mare leaves the state, one more farm is sold to developers," said Billy Boniface, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Gaudet, who has trained horses in Maryland for more than 30 years, said he sold his 80-acre farm in Upper Marlboro six years ago because it was not profitable. He plans to send his 17-year-old daughter Lacey to Delaware to learn horse training.

When Ehrlich was elected, Boniface thought the governor would team up with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and then-House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to quickly push slots through the legislature. But Taylor's successor as speaker, Michael E. Busch, opposes expanded gambling.

After three years of failure, Boniface and others in the industry weren't hopeful that this session would produce a breakthrough.

Election years typically don't produce major legislation such as slots, said Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Many at the track blame politics. Jockey agent Ben Feliciano Sr. speculated that state Democrats are delaying approving slots until a Democratic governor is elected.

In the meantime, more members of the Maryland racing community say they are looking out of state, said trainer and owner Dale Capuano Sr. He said his children and brother, who are all in the horse business, may move.

Trainer John "Jerry" Robb is building a second house in Delaware. If Maryland racing does not become more profitable, Robb said, the house in Delaware will become his primary residence.

Meanwhile, Maryland tracks are not attracting new racing fans, Robb said. "I can go in the grandstand any day of the week and see the same guys I've been seeing for 20 years."

Average daily attendance at Laurel Park and Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course has dropped nearly 50 percent since intertrack wagering began in 1989, according to the Maryland Jockey Club media guide.

Although the handle - the money bet each year - has gradually decreased from a high of $433 million in 1995 to $337 million last year, attendance at major races has increased. Last year, 115,318 people attended the Preakness, while attendance hovered between 80,000 and 90,000 in the 1980s and 1990s.

"The funny thing is that we're doing well," said Mike Gathagan, a spokesman for the company that owns Laurel and Pimlico, adding that Maryland benefits from bets on the state's races at other tracks around the country.

"I think it's a disgrace that they have slots all over the country, but not here," said Gaudet as he waited to watch his wife's horse, Fair Weather, run at Laurel. "All of our money is going out of state."

Slots have revitalized racing in West Virginia, said Pat Wolfe as she watched races on a bank of TVs inside Laurel Park. "The road to Charles Town is always congested," she said.

Wolfe thinks that slots will attract "old people who would be going to bingo," discounting critics who fear an increase in gambling addictions.

But slots can destroy communities, cautions Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of Stop Slots Maryland.

Moreover, installing slots in Maryland racetracks will not necessarily enable the state's racing industry to compete with nearby tracks, Meisner said.

"Philadelphia Park is going to be the 800-pound gorilla in terms of purses," Meisner said. "At the end of the day, we're going to be right back where we were with our track having purses that are substantially lower."

The Philadelphia Park race track in Bucks County, Pa., plans to install 1,250 slot machines in the grandstands by October or November, said Bill Hogwood, a director of the track. Track officials plan to complete construction on a casino with 3,000 to 5,000 slots by 2008 and double or triple purses, Hogwood said.

Once Maryland is surrounded by tracks offering purses fattened by slots money, lawmakers will have no choice but to approve slots if they want to retain owners and fans, Boniface said.

Some Maryland fans already consider the state's tracks inferior to those located a few hours away.

"We normally go to West Virginia," said Jessica Welden, who visited Laurel Park with her mother and cousin. "If we had woken up earlier, we would have been there."

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