Horses and Hollywood

Our view: Nearby race tracks put their casino games before the horses, naturally

May 03, 2010

Red roses, mint juleps, celebrities and the wealthy stylishly attired: The Kentucky Derby will once again prove itself the highlight of the horse racing season. But the glamour to be seen Saturday in Louisville masked the more telling "Hollywood" allure that's increasingly making horses and races the most irrelevant feature of tracks.

Penn National Gaming announced recently that Charles Town Races and Slots in Charles Town, W.Va., will henceforth be known as the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. That's not to be confused with the Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg, Pa., which is also operated by the same company. Could the Hollywood Casino at Pick-A-Spot, Maryland, be far behind?

This isn't a matter of putting the cart before the horses; Penn National knows which end of the business is making hay. Both sites have been approved for table games this summer. Giving the Tinseltown-themed casino top billing only makes sense, as that is the actual star of the show. Curious patrons are, of course, welcome to wander to the back of either locale and watch the animals running around the track — if that's of any interest to them.

Marylanders should expect to see the gambling pitches on billboards and newspaper advertisements soon enough. Charles Town has already become a 24/7 operation for those with a sudden 3 a.m. desire to play slots.

This is the reality of horse racing, and it is a pitiful thing. Marylanders may have chosen to bring slot machine gambling to the state two years ago to, at least in part, support horse racing, but it's becoming increasingly clear where the future lies.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has already shown interest in table games, saying Thursday that he's open to at least discussing the idea. That's a turnaround from his days in the State House, but it may just be a matter of recognizing the reality that casinos are now practically surrounding the state, much as slot machines have in the past.

What's sad about this is just how far horses have been shoved to the back seat. And Penn National's effort to market the eastern panhandle of West Virginia as "Hollywood" goes beyond mere irony to the bizarre. It may also be insufficient: Penn National's profits were down 11 percent in the first quarter compared with a year ago, a disappointment company officials credited to the downturn in consumer spending and bad weather.

Horse racing's ills have become painfully familiar: Wagering and attendance are down; many barns and tracks are in financial trouble, while others have been propped up with slots and other forms of gambling. But the sport's real problem is its irrelevance to the general public. Other than this weekend, or Maryland's upcoming leg of the Triple Crown, when was the last time you cared about the outcome of a horse race (assuming even the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes mattered)?

Maryland's foray into slots is proving to be problematic and will no doubt provide much fodder for the gubernatorial campaign. Let no one suggest that table games could revive racing, however. Keep it financially afloat, perhaps — but until the public starts caring about horses more than one, two or three times a year, it's difficult to see much future in the sport of kings.

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