Sound of Pennsylvania's slot machines Tuesday won't be music to horsemen here

Maryland's track jingle-jangle

November 12, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun reporter

When the first Pennsylvania slot machine casino opens Tuesday, the carnival jingling of the machines at the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs racetrack will be music to the ears of that state's horsemen.

But with each spin of the reels, some in Maryland will hear another nail being driven into the coffin of the racehorse industry here.

Pennsylvania's thoroughbred and standardbred industries expect to net about nine cents of every dollar of slots revenue. When Pennsylvania's 14 slots casinos are fully operational, that could mean as much as $270 million of additional cash for the horse industry under the most optimistic projections. That's nearly a fourfold increase over current purse and breeder incentive cash.

The bad news for the Maryland racehorse industry is that the new cash in Pennsylvania - even if slots revenues there are half of the blue-sky estimates - likely will continue a shift from slotless Maryland by breeders, owners and trainers.

"Six years ago, we had 48 mares that people sent here to be bred to Maryland [thoroughbred] stallions," said Cynthia McGinnes, owner of Thornmar Farm in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore. "This year we had one. Do I need to say more?"

McGinnes said that in the farm's heyday in the 1980s, Thornmar, a breeding farm since the late 17th century, had about 100 foals. The number of employees has shrunk from 20 to two.

McGinnes' complaint is a familiar one among those in the Maryland racehorse industry, both thoroughbred and standardbred. They contend that competition from neighboring states with slot machine gambling - Delaware, West Virginia and now Pennsylvania - is overwhelming.

Slots revenue at racetracks in those states, they argue, is used to pad purses and provide incentives for horses bred and sometimes sired in those states. As a result, customers, horses and even farms follow the money.

For instance, total racing handle in Maryland has dropped 16.2 percent to $505.3 million from 1994 to 2005, according to Maryland Racing Commission data. In a similar period, from 1994 through 2004, the number of thoroughbred stallions, mares bred and foals in Maryland has plummeted.

In Maryland in 1994, there were 152 sires, 2,175 mares bred and 1,159 foals, according to Maryland Jockey Club data. By 2004, those figures had dropped to 75 sires, 1,597 mares bred and 889 foals. In contrast, the foal count has risen more than 16 percent in Pennsylvania and nearly 130 percent in West Virginia in the same period.

"These slots will have a dramatic effect on people doing business in the horse industry," said William Solomon, a Pennsylvania thoroughbred and standardbred breeder who has a horse farm in New Freedom, just across the state line from Baltimore County. "It means an increase in horses, open space, farms, [agriculture] products, jobs."

Deteriorating climate

Solomon, a veterinarian, has some of the top thoroughbred stallions in Pennsylvania standing at his Pin Oak Lane Farm. Among them are Real Quiet, winner of the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and loser in the Belmont Stakes in a photo finish.

Over the years, Pin Oak Lane's success has been impressive - 1992 Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee was foaled there and so were standardbred stars such as Hambletonian victor Park Avenue Joe and Little Brown Jug winner Nick's Fantasy. But Park Avenue Joe happened to be bred not at Solomon's Pennsylvania farm, but at his then-Maryland branch in north Baltimore County.

For nearly 17 years, Solomon operated a farm in Maryland that also produced top standardbreds. But faced with what he saw as a deteriorating climate for horse racing in Maryland, Solomon pulled up stakes about five years ago.

Since then, a brightening picture in Pennsylvania has helped Solomon grow his business. This year, he said, he would breed 400 thoroughbred mares and another 50 standardbred mares. In contrast, in 2002, Pin Oak Lane bred 100 thoroughbred mares and 30 to 40 standardbred mares and "we were borrowing against the credit line to make it go," Solomon said.

Horses foaled in Pennsylvania - and in some instances sired there - will qualify for bonuses for top finishes. The breeding incentives could amount to as much as $40 million per year for both breeds combined. That would be on top of $230 million combined in enhanced purses.

"Without slot legislation, we would have been out of business," Solomon added.

Not everyone in Maryland envies Pennsylvania's slots future, though. Despite recently defeated Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s consistent support for slots legislation here, anti-slots resistance has prevailed.

It remains to be seen how slots legislation will fare under Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has favored limited slots gambling at racetracks to save horse racing and agricultural jobs. On Friday, O'Malley said he hoped to have legislation passed in the first or second legislative session.

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