Slots take back seat at Alibi Breakfast

May 16, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

At yesterday's Alibi Breakfast, there was much of the latter but remarkably little of the former.

Usually, this pre-Preakness event is an opportunity for big talk. Owners and trainers would make boastful predictions about how their horses would do in the race - or perhaps start dropping excuses should they perform badly - and politicians would use the event to promote the need to support the grand tradition of thoroughbred racing.

Translation: Slots. Slots! SLOTS.

But this year, with Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown far and away the favorite in Saturday's Preakness, most of the breakfast-goers speaking on behalf of the other horses in the race were not so much bragging as nearly conceding. You haven't heard this many contenders say they're just happy to be here since the last Academy Awards.

And, with the absence of the high-profile politicians who pushed through this November's slots referendum - Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Mike Miller, for example, were nowhere to be seen at the Pimlico clubhouse - there was little talk on the program about that thing, you know, that we absolutely positively have to have if we're going to save racing.

Oh, there was talk of gambling, of course. Scott P. Borgemenke, the executive vice president for racing at Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the racetrack, exhorted the several hundred in attendance to "bet as much money as you possibly can." Rick Dutrow, Big Brown's trainer, spoke little during his turn at the microphone but did encourage us to "go to the window."

But slots? They were a mostly silent presence.

Perhaps the less said the better: A Sun poll conducted this year found that 56 percent of Marylanders favored slots. But, the same percentage opposed using state revenues to support the horse racing industry.

Slots to fund education? Yes, please. Slots to provide tax relief? You bet.. Slots to keep Maryland money from drifting over the border to the one-armed bandits operating in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania? Ka-ching!

But to support racing? Not so much.

And yet, as the slots proposal has it, about $140 million of the revenue would go to the racing industry.

Forget the Preakness for a moment - it's Easter Sunday, the Super Bowl, the mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Meaning, yeah, the true believers are there, but sharing their pews, sofas and parking spaces with the amateurs, the once-a-yearers.

Like symphony

Horse racing is like the symphony: Its core audience is graying, yet devoted. Yesterday's breakfast was a charming event. All sorts of old stories got rehashed. Members of the far flung yet tight-knit racing community reunited as they always do, every May, at Old Hilltop. The clump of horse-themed ties was passed as it does among a group of old-timers, this time to the trainer, King Leatherbury.

Hugh Curd was back for his 62nd Preakness, having seen his first one as a 10-year-old from atop the roof of one of the stable barns. "It was 1941. That was Whirlaway," he said by way of explanation as to why he has come back, year after year, although he now lives mostly in Florida.

For Curd, and no doubt many others at the breakfast, there's only one question about slots: "I don't know why it hasn't happened already."

And yet, for those who haven't been steeped in this tradition or raised on its romance, for those for whom racing boils down to one day a year - or three, at most - it's a harder sell. Particularly in the past couple of years, when catastrophic injuries to horses have marred first the Preakness, with Barbaro shattering a leg in 2006, and then the Kentucky Derby this year, when Eight Belles was euthanized after collapsing just past the finish line.

That's why in the coming months, when the subject is slots, you'll hear about schools and taxes and wide open spaces (translation: horse farms) much more than you'll hear about tracks and purses and exactas.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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