Slots fail to keep bettors at track

Crowds gallop to casino games as horse racing declines throughout region

June 24, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Eleven years after Delaware allowed slot machines at its racetracks, the purses horses compete for are higher than ever and the races more competitive. The grandstand at Delaware Park is spotless, the restaurants are new and the parking (for a mere $3) is valet.

But hardly anyone is there to watch the horses, much less bet on them.

The cheers of the crowd as the horses came down the home stretch one afternoon last week were not quite loud enough to drown out the soft hum of the air conditioners that kept slot machine players cool in the casino attached to the grandstand. Fewer than a hundred people were sprinkled among thousands of empty seats at the track.

Maryland racing officials insist that they need slots at the state's tracks to revitalize their industry, which they say is suffering from competition from Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where expanded gambling subsidizes purses and attracts the best horses. But the experience of those states shows that slots have done nothing to attract more people to horse racing.

"There's no correlation," said George Sidiroplois, the West Virginia Racing Commission chairman. "It's inverse, in fact."

Figures from Delaware show that live betting on thoroughbred horse racing in the state has dropped by 40 percent since slots were legalized in 1996. Six months after slots came online at Philadelphia Park in Pennsylvania, betting is down by 20 percent. West Virginia's wagering handles increased sharply a few years ago when the state's tracks began broadcasting their races nationally, but betting has leveled off and begun to decline.

Maryland is due for another round in its decade-long debate over whether to legalize slots. Pressure has been mounting for months as many lawmakers, particularly in the state Senate, have looked to slots as a way to close much of the $1.5 billion budget gap Maryland faces next year.

But it was an announcement two weeks ago by the Maryland Jockey Club that it would cut purses at its races for the rest of the year to make ends meet that led Gov. Martin O'Malley to proclaim slots a necessity to save the state's historic horse racing industry - and the jobs and horse farms that go with it.

"All these things are threatened by their inability to compete with tracks in states around us who are able to offer slots," O'Malley said at the time. "We can't expect them to thrive, or even survive ... if we handicap them and don't allow them the tools that the tracks in all the other states are using."

The tracks in neighboring states are thriving in the sense that horsemen and jockeys are competing for three times as much money as they did before slots, and track owners are making millions. But that hasn't done anything to stem the declining popularity of horse racing.

"This place used to be mobbed," Jean Carter of Wilmington said while going through the racing forms in Delaware Park's nearly empty grandstand before the start of a race. "Either people went broke, or a lot like to go to the slots instead of horses."

Maryland Jockey Club President Lou Raffetto acknowledges that racing has declined in neighboring states, but he insists that that won't happen here. Maryland has a horse racing tradition that eclipses that in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and has the farms, breeding operations, infrastructure and committed track owners to match, he said. In those other states, Raffetto said, "they really don't care."

"I've been in the business over 30 years, and I'm not naive," Raffetto said. "I really believe the difference in Maryland is going to be that the people that run Maryland, and I'm referring to all the people involved in the day-to-day operations, care about what racing looks like, care about where the program is headed.

"It's going to be not just about slots raising purses to enable the horsemen to make a better living," he added. "It's going to be about bringing people back out to the facility and showing them what a great sport this is."

In Delaware and West Virginia, marketing for the tracks tends to focus on slots, not horses. Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia, for example, rents billboards in Baltimore that advertise the number of slot machines there and even the number of parking spaces. But they don't mention the races.

In Pennsylvania, slots backers made many of the same arguments Maryland's racing industry has about the need for slots at the tracks, but horsemen there say they feel they've been betrayed.

Philadelphia Park is the only thoroughbred track in the state that has begun a combined slots and racing operation. When the track's owners applied for a slots license, they promised a new $300 million casino. As a temporary move, they squeezed horse betting operations into the fifth floor of the grandstand and turned the rest of the space over to slots.

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