Capitalists, pols make most of day

Slot machine talk amid horse racing? You bet

Preakness Stakes

May 20, 2007|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

As the hordes of horse racing fans wagered on the Preakness yesterday, the three men in positions to handicap the future of the race and its host track sat comfortably above the fray in Pimlico's exclusive jockey club dining room.

All three - Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and track owner Joseph A. De Francis - support slot machines at racetracks. It's a measure many believe will keep Maryland's horse industry from fleeing to nearby states that allow the devices.

But the one man who was not there was the one politician who has derailed all slots efforts for the past four years: House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"Were they all there? I wonder why I wasn't invited?" Busch said jokingly in a phone interview from his home after the race. He didn't attend the Preakness, he said, because his daughter had a lacrosse game.

While millions of dollars being wagered on yesterday's races, Miller and De Francis placed their political bets on O'Malley. They believe the Democratic governor will get the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to agree on slots legislation, something his GOP predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., could not accomplish.

And while O'Malley would not say which horse he believed would win the Preakness, he did say that Miller and De Francis' bet was a safe pick.

"I'm hopeful with the new tone we were able to establish in the last [General Assembly] session that we all will be able to find some consensus," said O'Malley, who supports a limited number of slots at racetracks. "I would hope that within the course of the next year, we will be able to find common ground."

So does De Francis, chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club.

"We have our fingers and our toes crossed," said De Francis in between attending to his high-powered guests. "It's really become critical for the very survival of the industry."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon sat at a table next to the one at which Miller and De Francis dined and two away from where O'Malley and his family were eating. She was equally removed from their positions.

"Personally, I don't support slots," said Dixon later, while mingling inside the state government's infield tent. "I would hate to have Pimlico close and we lose the Preakness."

She said that if new slots legislation arises, she would work with the city delegation to make sure any proposal would protect communities against social ills associated with slot machines: compulsive gambling, mortgage foreclosures and crime.

Comptroller Peter Franchot also mingled in the same tent in which O'Malley held court - mugging for photographers, shaking hands and encouraging foreign buyers of Maryland horses. While Franchot said he is generally supportive of O'Malley, he disagreed with the governor's slots position.

"I love the Preakness, but the only people slots benefit are out-of-state gambling interests," Franchot said. "I hope we don't go in that direction."

He labeled threats that the Preakness could leave Maryland without slots as a "stalking horse."

Busch said the legislature could find alternate revenue sources to increase the purses for horse races. Purses in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware are bigger because of slot machine revenues.

"We're going to work hard to make sure the racing industry stays here - with or without slots," Busch said.

Miller said Maryland could compete with those other states only if it offers the large purses that slots provide - not to mention the possible additional revenue to assist with education funding.

"What's most important is that there is $500 million a year of disposable income going to our sister states," Miller said. "They're building schools in our sister states with Maryland money."

But Miller's betting wasn't at its best yesterday. The Senate president advised O'Malley's father-in-law, former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., to bet on a horse in the eighth race.

The horse was Celtic Innis, a Maryland-bred horse with an Irish name that Miller thought Curran should back.

"It wasn't so much a tip as just to say there was an Irish horse in a race," Miller said.

Curran bet and lost.

But his grandson, William O'Malley, apparently is. The governor's son picked Chelokee to win in the first Barbaro Stakes. Not only did he win, the younger O'Malley also presented the trophy to the winner with his mother, Katie Curran O'Malley.

Although gambling legislation was a contentious issue when Ehrlich was in office, the tone yesterday - many in attendance agreed - was far less strained than last year when O'Malley was the Baltimore mayor attending the Preakness with his Republican opponent.

It was unclear yesterday if Ehrlich attended the race.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said last year was stressful because of all the campaigning.

"Now it's fun," he said.

"Slots is one of the most contentious issues," Brown said. "I think it's possible. ... It won't be easy."

After he spoke, dark storm clouds rolled in. Winds tore at ladies' hats and snapped the tents. And rain sent the guests, including O'Malley and Miller, Franchot and Dixon, heading for cover.

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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