Two distinct questions

August 16, 2007

The horse-racing business in Maryland is worth trying to save, for three main reasons. It employs about 9,000 people; the Preakness is a great national showcase for Baltimore; and, maybe most important, the horse farms in the state supported directly or indirectly by racing occupy 685,000 acres of land as open space, about a tenth of all the open space in Maryland.

But slot machines are not the way to save the horses.

On Tuesday, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley began distributing a report by Thomas E. Perez, the secretary of labor, licensing and regulation, that examines the impact of slots on neighboring states and on their racetracks, and finds it to be significant. But there are all sorts of apples and oranges in this debate (we're tempted to say road apples and oranges) - and perhaps a fig leaf or two, as well.

The problem with slots as a cure for racing is this:

In Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, by far the largest share of the slots take goes to the track owners, not to the people generically called "horsemen" - those who make the business work. Purses are in fact higher than they were, which helps, and the "handle" is up at tracks with slots - but that's because of simulcast betting, not because of wagering on the races at hand. This simulcast income is, again, money that goes to the track operators, not the trainers or breeders or owners or grooms or jockeys. If slots were salvaging horse racing as a pastime, a result should be more people betting on the races in front of them.

The preservation of a fine old tradition such as thoroughbred horse racing is a noble goal, but it's not what really lies behind the push for slots. Politicians want slots because they want the revenue for the state. Horse tracks are just a convenient place to put them; in Delaware, 11 percent of the take goes to supplement purses; 36 percent goes to the state's general fund, and the biggest share, 48 percent, goes to the operators. The slices are similar in the other states.

What to do about racing is one question. Whether slots are good for the state is quite another. The answer to the second question has to take into account the social damage that accompanies slots, the great wealth that slots bestow upon private operators, and the threat to good government posed by the often unseemly scramble to obtain licenses and apportion machines. A crumb thrown to the horsemen and horsewomen shouldn't be enough to distract Marylanders from the real issues at stake.

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