Md. racing industry revives, but some still see need for expanded gambling

As slots languish, tracks race ahead

Preakness Stakes

Saturday Post time 6:15 p.m.


When NBC sportscaster Bob Costas stood next to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at last year's Preakness Stakes trophy presentation, he asked the question that was echoing from the infield to the grandstand: Would that Preakness be Maryland's last?

Slot machine gambling - long pitched as the savior of the state's beleaguered horse racing industry - had failed in the legislature for the third year in a row, and Pimlico's majority owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., was sounding ominous notes about the future.

Facing a national television audience, Ehrlich, who had been chief among those warning that the race could be on its way out of the state, promised results.

"The Preakness is never going to leave the state of Maryland," Ehrlich said. "We will ensure - look at these 100,000 people - our rich tradition. In Maryland, we love the Preakness. We love our horse racing industry. It's been a difficult course in the legislature. We will get it done."

But this year, where slots was concerned, nothing got done. Ehrlich put in a bill for the fourth year in a row but did little to push it. The state's newfound budget surplus - plus the politics of an election year - made any chance for success small, he said. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Ehrlich's chief ally in the slots fight, held no hearings on expanded gambling.

Nonetheless, the Preakness is back. And, even without slots, the Maryland horse racing industry is showing signs of life.

Two horses with Maryland ties - Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and Sweetnorthernsaint - are in contention for the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown Saturday.

The betting handle on the winter meet at Laurel was 25 percent higher than in 2005.

Maryland's standardbred and thoroughbred owners and breeders came to an agreement on simulcasting revenues after years of discord.

Canada-based Magna turned a profit in the first quarter of this year, and talk of slots has all but disappeared.

"At least they're not threatening to take the Preakness away this year, and that's good news," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Still, the lull in the dire warnings about the race's future - by now a tradition nearly as entrenched as the black-eyed Susan - doesn't mean a lot of minds have changed about the future of Maryland horse racing without slots.

Slots foes are pleased by the industry's good fortune.

"The excitement of the sport and the tradition of the sport is unencumbered by the fact that there's no expanded gambling at the racetrack," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the state's chief opponent of slots.

"The fact that we've got a couple of Maryland horses in contention at the [Kentucky] Derby and the Preakness just adds to the excitement."

Backers of expanded gambling see this year as a temporary stretch in an inevitable decline if slots don't come to the tracks.

Last year's Preakness was the first since the Pennsylvania legislature approved slot machine gambling at locations including racetracks, and many in Maryland's racing industry saw the slots program there as a sign of doom, much worse than the gambling parlors in Delaware and West Virginia.

Slots haven't started in Pennsylvania, but supporters of gambling say that when they do, it will be a disaster for Maryland.

Ehrlich, the state's chief supporter of slots, said the long-term signs for the industry are ominous, despite the less-dire talk circulating this year.

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, pointed to positive signs for the racing in the state recently. The opening of a $23 million turf course at Laurel Park has led to bigger fields, better horses and more betting, he said.

But Magna, the majority owner of the jockey club, which runs Laurel and Pimlico, is unlikely to make additional large capital investments in the state without new money from slots, De Francis said.

"We've managed to survive relatively well over the course of the last eight or nine months, really since we opened the turf course at Laurel last summer," he said. "In terms of the long-term viability of the business, nothing has really changed."

Goodall said breeding operations remain strong because a core group of strong stallions has remained in the state. But she said the overall dynamics that led to last year's concern haven't changed.

"I guess the horse industry is just surprised that the state hasn't decided that it needs to be able to ... keep the gambling money in the state," she said.

Slots have been at the forefront of the state's political agenda since Ehrlich's election in 2002. The Republican governor made expanded gambling the centerpiece of his legislative priorities and pushed for passage along with Miller, who has been a supporter of slots for years.

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