Horse racing's odds not good

Slow growth and land preservation have overtaken slots as issue in horse country.

Maryland Votes 2006

10 Days Until Nov. 7

October 28, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

Chesapeake City -- The future of Maryland horse racing is written inside the black book Eli Scott Jr. holds in his meaty hands.

Don't bother reading it if you like happy endings.

"There's not a Maryland-sired horse in here," he drawls, flipping through pages.

Scott, a 45-year-old trainer who's built like a blacksmith, rents most of a 40-acre farm on the outskirts of this historic town in Cecil County. Plush, green countryside unspools in all directions, cross-hatched with dark fences and presided over by stately tall trees blessed with stage presence.

He works a dozen standardbreds (two of which he owns a stake in), hoping to produce a few harness-racing speed burners. That black book he's holding is a kind of equine auction catalog. It lists hundreds of fresh legs that will be available for purchase at the annual Harrisburg Yearling Sale in early November.

"The biggest sale in the industry," Scott mutters in frustration, "and there's not one Maryland-bred horse."

According to the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, it is marketplace economics in action. Owners are bolting for greener pastures, opting to breed elsewhere so their horses can meet the home-grown eligibility requirements and race in Delaware, West Virginia, New Jersey and, coming soon, Pennsylvania - places where the purses are fatter thanks to the infusion of cash generated by track-side slot machines. The state is turning out about 800 foals a year, roughly a 50 percent drop from a decade ago.

During the weeklong yearlings sale in Harrisburg, Americans will step into voting booths in search of political winners. Standing in his barn next to a stall occupied by a 4-year-old pacer named Anthony's Bliss, Scott admits nothing would have pleased him more than to have seen a slots referendum on the ballot this fall.

Maybe next year.

Or the year after.

"I'm a horseman," he says. "Slots are on my mind. ... But in Cecil County, slots are not in the forefront now. The issue is farm preservation."

In October 2004, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took a photo-op tour of Winbak Farms, a 2,000-acre horse spread about a mile down the road from Scott's. Maryland horses won't be displaced by tract-housing developments as has been the case in Delaware, Ehrlich said. No vinyl-sided nightmares called "Fox Hunting Crossing" and "Wheatland" will mar the landscape.

"That's not going to happen on my watch," the governor vowed, insisting that slot machines would save the horse industry and halt those meadow-chewing bulldozers in their tracts. That was the plan.

But Ehrlich's initiative - which envisioned 15,500 machines at four racetracks and three additional locations - stumbled out of the gate. House Speaker Michael E. Bush threw his legislative weight behind a less ambitious alternative plan allowing 9,500 machines.

To make the idea more palatable, proposals were crafted to divert some of the horse industry-relief proceeds. To school construction. To all-purpose county grants. Some counties welcomed slots. Most did not. Some politicians pushed hard for a compromise. Most did not.

"I blame the legislature," says Scott. "Maryland had to make it complicated."

His bloodlines are Democratic, but he's a registered independent. Scott will vote for Ehrlich, as well as incumbent Republican Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. But he has no affection for President Bush and, moreover, is troubled by his party's aversion to anything that smacks of conservation: "Most Republicans, you mention the environment to them and it's like outer space."

Maybe it's a trainer's soft spot for dark horses, but Scott hasn't "given up" his slot machines dream. As a hedge, however, he has teamed with more Delaware-owned or -bred horses. "I've protected myself and my business," he says.

Protection is also on the Rev. Harold M. Phillips' agenda. He hosted a political forum a few weeks ago at Pleasant View Baptist Church in Port Deposit. About 15 candidates showed up, from seasoned state senators to aspiring school board members. A range of topics were discussed, but Phillips pressed each participant for details about his or her position on slots.

"People love horses in this area," he explains, "but we don't have to sell our future out to save the horse farms."

Racetrack gambling is one of a handful of factors Phillips considers when candidate-shopping. There are also environmental and growth issues, abortion restrictions and the sanctity-of-marriage constitutional amendment. He won't identify what politicians he favors, other than to say, "I'm not a Democrat or Republican. I vote for who I think will support family values."

Having lost political steam, the slots issue seems to be morphing into a broader preoccupation with how growth and development will impact quality of life in the state's most rural county.

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