No sure bets on final fate of slots

November 21, 2007|By RICK MAESE

To borrow a gambling analogy, news this week that voters would finally decide the fate of slots in Maryland felt an awful lot like pulling the arm of a machine and watching a series of cherries pop up.

A winner! Jackpot! Payday!

But don't let the flashing lights and ringing sirens fool you - there was no payoff pouring out of the machine, not for the horse racing industry anyway.

At the track, even when we have a photo finish, it's still simple to sort out the winners and losers. At the State House, it's not so easy.

After years of tortured hand-wringing and moral grandstanding, state lawmakers finally agreed to a referendum that puts the slots issue to voters next November. So at the same time we decide whether our consciences approve of slots, we'll be rolling the dice that our preferred presidential candidate has been honest and is truly the best bet to lead our nation. Yeah, no gambling there, right?

In Maryland, the slots issue always has revolved around the horse racing industry, and the gut reaction this week was that lawmakers managed once again to fail the breeders, trainers and railbirds. But upon further inspection, it appears the referendum is a landmark admission of defeat for our elected leaders.

Not a defeat on slots, mind you, but a defeat on their ability to make a decision. It was a nonpartisan agreement, everyone essentially saying, "Sorry, voters, we just can't do it. Here, you try."

No, it doesn't make sense that decision-makers could fail so miserably at making a decision, but as it concerns slots and the state's horse racing industry, has anything really made sense?

(And let's not even get started on the decision to keep slots far away from Pimlico, presumably because we don't want to invite "that element" into the neighborhood. Has anyone taken a walk around Pimlico lately? It's like Laurel-based trainer Michael Trombetta told The Sun's horse racing writer, Sandra McKee: "We live in the murder capital of the U.S. Maybe if they put in slots, some of those guys would take a day off.")

The cynic would surely point out that smart politicians don't make decisions; they make compromises. And that's how the referendum is being sold. It's the best the two sides could come up with after a stalemate that, at times, had no end in sight. This is why many in the horse racing community were satisfied with such an unsatisfying outcome. They've grown hoarse screaming about the troubles of their industry and had long ago given up on politicians' ability to do the right thing.

"Basic common sense wasn't going to prevail in Annapolis," breeder Mike Pons said.

He used a football analogy, explaining that the horse racing industry has been camped near the goal line, well aware that the end zone was just inches away. "We'd been trying dive play after dive play, and we just couldn't break through," Pons said. "So, eventually, you just have to settle for the three points."

If slots seemed like a contentious issue before, get ready. The political battle over the next 12 months will be fierce. Just sorting out the wording of the ballot question will keep radio talk-show hosts busy. By the end, I'm not sure we'll even agree which end of the horse is the head.

At the very least, I suppose, we should appreciate that an end is in sight. By next November, the people will decide for themselves whether they want slots and whether they want to save horse racing in Maryland. Hopefully, by then we'll all understand that those two are the same question.

Unfortunately, putting the matter to voters means we wait another year on the decision, and then, even if it passes - and remember, voters in five of six states rejected slots in 2006 - we shouldn't expect coins to drop into any machines until 2010. That's a long time for an industry that's already dragging along an oxygen tank everywhere it goes.

More horses and more horsemen will head north, where Pennsylvania has had slots for a year. In 12 months, gamblers there have parted with $10.6 billion - $880 for every man, woman and child in Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press - and even more slots are scheduled for 2008.

"Just think, if we'd passed the slots bill five years ago, there wouldn't even be a deficit right now," Pons said.

Relying on lawmakers to save a fading industry probably was always a losing proposition. But when our elected leaders folded their cards and walked away from the table this week, they left voters with a chip to play.

Hopefully, next November they can finally do what their elected officials couldn't - provide a much-needed payoff for an important Maryland industry.

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