Racing's final call?

Our view: With passage of Question A, Maryland horse racing needs a Plan B to keep the industry viable

November 04, 2010

For Maryland's breeders, owners, trainers and others employed in the horse racing industry, news that the Maryland Jockey Club wants to reduce Laurel Park to no more than an off-track betting parlor is akin to reading their industry's obituary. Moving away from a year-round, live racing operation, as Laurel is today, to a brief, 40-day schedule at Pimlico built around the Preakness Stakes is the difference between maintaining a Maryland-based racing industry and not.

That's a sad turn of events for a state with such a historic and cherished racing tradition as Maryland's. But it would seem to be the inevitable result of owner Magna Entertainment Corp.'s failure to submit a qualified bid for slot machines at Laurel last year.

With the passage of Question A by Anne Arundel County voters on Tuesday, the last serious challenge to plans for a casino at Arundel Mills mall was obliterated. Slot machines aren't coming to Laurel — not in 2012, probably not ever.

But do slot machines at Arundel Mills really have to mean the end of racing? Three years ago, when the General Assembly approved legalizing slots, lawmakers also carved out generous subsidies for racing. One ensures that 2.5 percent of slots revenue (up to $40 million annually) would be available to upgrade the tracks.

The other, more lucrative subsidy directs 7 percent of slots revenue — up to $100 million annually — to enrich purses, the money paid out to race participants. That might not go directly to the track's owners, but it would allow for higher-quality races, and with it higher attendance, more betting and more revenue from simulcasting.

Jockey Club officials say that's not enough to justify keeping open Laurel Park, which they say loses as much as $8 million annually. And legislators would be foolish to pump that $100 million into only 40 racing dates at Pimlico. That would be a ridiculously small return on investment for money that might otherwise be used to finance education or some other public good in this state.

That leaves at least one alternative to save racing. Elected officials, the Maryland Jockey Club and others in the racing industry need to explore other possible uses for that $100 million purse subsidy that might preserve a racing schedule in Maryland along the lines of the current 146-day combined schedule of Pimlico and Laurel.

Gov. Martin O'Malley ought to be the one to lead this effort. It won't be easy. Legislators will be loath to approve such a deal if it appears to be enriching the very people who have helped cause racing's decline. And the end of live racing at Laurel may be just the excuse some in Annapolis need to withdraw racing's subsidies entirely, particularly given the state's projected $1.1 billion budget deficit.

But that would ignore the hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs that may be at stake in this decision. Laurel probably can't survive in its existing form just 10 miles from the Arundel Mills slot machines and entertainment complex. Without it, Maryland-based racing won't survive either.

When the legislature reconvenes in January, lawmakers will have one final chance to preserve both. The odds are probably stacked against such an effort, but miracles sometimes have been known to happen in the final stretch.

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