Pimlico Special halted, raising stakes on slots

Md. Jockey Club cites competition

pressure rises for legislation in '07

General Assembly

January 26, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

In a move that increases pressure for slots legislation this year, the Maryland Jockey Club announced yesterday that a storied Pimlico event first run 70 years ago will be canceled because of competition from states where expanded gambling subsidizes horse tracks.

The cancellation of this year's Pimlico Special - a race that in 1938 pitted Seabiscuit against War Admiral at the height of thoroughbred racing's golden age - coincided with a day of testimony from horse racing officials in Annapolis about how their industry is suffering without slots revenue.

Officials predicted that the addition of slot machines in Pennsylvania to existing competition from Delaware and West Virginia will lead to the death of Maryland racing within a few years. They mounted the argument even as the Jockey Club ended one of its most successful years, with its gambling handle rising 7.2 percent to $960 million mainly because of higher attendance at large events such as the Pimlico Special and the Preakness Stakes.

Still, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller seized on the news to renew his push for gambling - a perennial debate in Annapolis and the unsuccessful top initiative of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Miller insisted yesterday that slots must be part of the equation to solve the state's long-term budget woes, and that if they are not legalized immediately, the Maryland horse racing industry will be lost.

"Everything is a downhill spiral for racing until they get these video lottery terminals at the tracks," Miller said. "The purses can benefit, but mostly the state benefits, because the profits don't go to the owners, the profits go to the state, and we can build schools here in the state of Maryland instead of letting personal disposable money go to [West] Virginia, Delaware and western Pennsylvania."

The day's events returned the dominant issue of the last term to the forefront of a General Assembly session in which most contentious topics have been pushed off until next year.

It is not a debate the newly elected governor, Martin O'Malley, wants to have in his first legislative session.

O'Malley nominally supports slots at racetracks to save the horse industry, and he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from gambling interests in the past few weeks to help retire debt from his campaign, according to campaign finance reports. But he did not introduce a slots bill, and he said last week that he wants to spend this 90-day General Assembly session working on other things.

"That issue is one that got us into drawing lines in the sand," O'Malley said last week, referring to the debates during Ehrlich's term. "Every other issue fell hostage to that debate. I do not want to allow education, health care and all the other issues we need to deal with in the next months to fall hostage to that standoff."

But horse racing officials - close Miller allies and supporters - worked yesterday to force the issue back into the spotlight.

The Maryland Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer, Lou Raffetto, testified before the Senate Finance Committee that canceling the race for at least one year was a painful decision and probably not the only one that the horse industry will have to make soon. Raffetto said he expects that the Jockey Club, which runs the Pimlico and Laurel race courses, will have to cut racing dates by 20 percent next year, dropping from 180 to about 145.

"It's not what we want to do," he said. "It's what we may be driven to do."

Raffetto and other racing officials did not suggest that the Preakness Stakes - the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown - would be at risk, a perennial threat to stoke the slots debate.

The decision not to hold the Pimlico Special is far from unprecedented; the race went on a 30-year hiatus from 1958 to 1988. It also was canceled in 2002.

Still, the historic race is one of the top draws at Pimlico, with horse owners paying $10,000 per entry. A crowd of 24,429 watched last year's running, and nearly $14 million was wagered on Pimlico races that day, track records show. Officials said they plan to redistribute the $500,000 in Pimlico Special purse money to other races.

The plight of the horse industry is an old argument in Annapolis and a complicated one. Horsemen testified yesterday that they are having difficulty making ends meet in Maryland and are feeling pressure to move to Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, an executive with Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico and Laurel, testified that the company recently made $200 million by selling a track with a slots license in Pennsylvania, and William Rickman, a track operator who is pushing for slots in Maryland, told senators that he is making millions in profits from his slots license in Delaware.

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