Pride and persuasion

May 22, 2007

All those associated with the Preakness Stakes deserve kudos for putting on a spectacular show Saturday. A record crowd of 121,263 witnessed a race as fast as any ever run at the course and that featured a finish so close that a single bob of the head may have made the difference in Curlin's victory over Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

This was the best that horse racing has to offer - and it didn't require that a single slot machine be installed at Pimlico Race Course.

How unfortunate that slot machines continue to be promoted as the golden tonic of our age, the balm for not only the declining attendance at Maryland tracks (on days other than Preakness Saturday, that is) but also the state's budget woes. That's certainly the view of Magna Entertainment, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, which stands to make an enormous windfall if the General Assembly chooses to buy this snake oil.

Yes, slots might bring customers to Pimlico, and all the money fed into the machines would no doubt include a tax payoff for the state (although the revenue potential has been grossly oversold). But they also carry an enormous cost, financial and social.

Slots represent a regressive tax on the poor and fixed-income residents. And they carry a particular burden for law enforcement, which must address increased crime, and for local businesses that lose their customers to gambling. That's not helpful to a struggling neighborhood such as Pimlico.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has been talking up slots lately, and aides are exploring the possibility of a "limited" franchise at the racetracks as part of a budget-balancing initiative. But such a proposal still faces long odds in Annapolis. Why? Because House members will once again be divided by the core issues - where to locate the machines (rare is the community that wants them nearby) and who gets to profit from them.

The whole concept of a limited expansion of gambling seems fraudulent on its face. Surrounding states are already engaged in a veritable arms race of gambling. Next month, voters in West Virginia's Jefferson County will decide whether to permit table games at Charles Town, which is just 67 miles from Baltimore. Instead of arguing for slots, Magna will soon be asking for a full-fledged casino to keep up - and a state government dependent on gambling revenues is unlikely to deny it.

Maryland horse racing has a proud tradition exemplified by the Preakness. Propping it up with slot machines so it might continue as some half-forgotten vestigial appendage does no honor to the sport of kings.

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