At The Finish Line?

Lack Of Slots At Laurel Could Signal Its Demise - And Big Trouble For Maryland's Horse Industry

December 14, 2009|By Karen Hosler

Been to Laurel Park Race Course lately? Or ever? For folks who travel often along the I-95 corridor between Washington and Wilmington, Del., it's worth making a stop at this horsy outdoor oasis a bit south of Baltimore. Odds are, the charming old oval won't be there much longer.

Sad enough will be silencing those pounding hoofs and the urgent cries of encouragement from bettors. But Laurel's potential shuttering highlights a much larger retreat of one of the remaining bulwarks against the creep of poisonous suburban sprawl: the working horse properties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Laurel Park appears about to fall victim to a botched bid for a new lease on life through slot-machine gambling. Maryland voters approved slots last year in what was supposed to be a fiscal shot in the arm for the state to take the pressure off taxes. Probably incidentally for most voters, slots were also supposed to help Maryland's flagging thoroughbred racing industry compete with tracks and breeding farms in neighboring Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware. Slots give those states an advantage in attracting bettors, and they boost racing purses to draw the best equine competitors. The new generation of one-arm bandits has paid off quite nicely for them.

None of that is working yet for Laurel. Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian company that owns Laurel as well as Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness in Baltimore, went bankrupt just as bidding for a state slots license began. The two tracks are now on the auction block, and a slots license has been approved for nearby Arundel Mills Mall (although the Anne Arundel County Council has yet to approve the necessary zoning change).

Joseph A. De Francis, a former owner of the tracks, is trying to buy them back and is threatening protracted legal action to win Laurel Park another shot at the slots license. If his plan fails, though, the property would likely be more valuable to its new owners as a big box store.

Granted, those 236 acres tucked along a junky road of strip malls are not anyone's version of wilderness or even much green space. But their potential redevelopment serves as a warning of what may await the 2 million or so acres of working horse property in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that stretches from central New York through Pennsylvania and embraces most of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia.

As this land is transformed - because its owners can no longer make a living from horses - both the economy and the environment lose. Retired race tracks and horse farms rarely get preserved for posterity. They usually become shopping centers or housing developments. This so-called "highest and best use" development often costs more in government services than it produces in tax revenue, according to studies by the American Farmland Trust.

Consequences for the bay are dire. Development means more toxic run-off from rooftops, roads and parking lots; increased nitrogen-filled tailpipe emissions from cars; and the loss of vital wildlife habitat for critters that help keep the ecology in balance. To say nothing of the loss of farms and vistas that distinguish our region.

Perhaps a slots cease-fire is in order. Rob Burke, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, said now that the Free State is sort of on equal slots footing with its neighbors, everyone should work together for common benefit of racing in the Mid-Atlantic region, to better compete with racing powerhouses in Kentucky and New York. Alas, Maryland's neighbors seem intent on upping the ante instead.

Luckily, recreational horse use is rising throughout the bay watershed, even where breeding farms and traditional agriculture are disappearing. Prince William County, Va., for example, has lost much of its traditional agriculture but is dotted with 5-to-10-acre farmettes where horses are boarded and trained. Owners often have day jobs elsewhere.

With this transformation has come greater concern for nutrient management. Horse poop is easier to manage than what comes from chickens, dogs and people, but it still needs to be controlled. Prince William has developed a model program that shows these part-time farmers how to compost their manure for future use or sale with a minimum of moving it around. Some enterprising horse owners dry out the stuff and sell it.

Thing is, the recreational horse industry needs the racing folks. They share horses, trainers, vets, farriers, feed growers, hay suppliers, tack shops, arenas and eager enthusiasts. Lose racing, and the whole culture could come crashing down.

Maybe nobody cares about a two-bit race track that is all but empty even on glorious late fall days. But we all should. Laurel Park helps give this region its character, its history, its environment. Get out and root for your favorites before it's too late.

Karen Hosler, former editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host for 88.1 WYPR. This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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