Race tracks need subsidies

Things are looking up for horse industry, but state help is still needed

March 16, 2011|By Steuart Pittman Jr

State legislators will decide in the coming days whether to pass Gov. Martin O'Malley's horse racing bill (HB1039/SB848). The legislation creates a process whereby thoroughbred and harness track owners can apply to the state for operating subsidies from slots revenue — if they can demonstrate that the funds are needed to run races.

To be approved for these funds, track owners must get business and marketing plans approved by our Maryland Racing Commission. That gives the state and the public input and influence. Every dime used in this program was allocated to horse racing by Maryland voters when they approved slots in 2008. The bill simply allows us to shift dollars from race track facility renewal to race track operations so that track owners can keep facilities open for racing.

Some key legislators are angry at the out-of-state corporations that own the Maryland Jockey Club and will avoid doing anything that might benefit them. Others don't believe that racing has a future in this state because track lobbyists have argued for years that the industry can't survive without casinos.

We in the Maryland horse industry share the frustration, but today we have a message of optimism. Four hundred of us packed the Racing Commission meeting in December to stand up for the legacy of Maryland racing in the face of plans by Penn National Gaming and MI Developments (MID) to end live racing at Laurel and reduce it at Pimlico. We pointed out that five local bidders had eagerly sought to acquire the tracks in a cancelled bankruptcy auction last spring. We cited promising statistics, like the ESPN polls estimating that 37 percent of Americans describe themselves as racing fans. We loudly proclaimed that Maryland racing has a future — with or without its out-of-state owners — and many of us called on the governor to seize the tracks and sell them to a local buyer with a commitment to the sport in this state.

That show of unity and resolve by the horsemen, breeders, fans and state officials changed the rules of the game. Penn National Gaming has said that it will sell its 49 percent of the Maryland Jockey Club back to MID. MID Chairman Frank Stronach has announced that he will transfer his racing assets from MID to his own family trust. That means no stockholders demanding immediate returns on investment. On the harness side, Penn National has purchased Rosecroft and is already preparing to open for harness racing this fall — if this bill passes.

Slots revenues are finally being deposited into purse accounts. The breeders who did not permanently relocate to neighboring states are looking forward to revitalizing their farms and producing the horses that can win future races. The pastures and hay fields that support these horses will continue to filter the water that travels to the Chesapeake Bay. The 10,000 jobs supported by the existence of tracks will remain in our state.

Modern thinking is creeping into the industry. Race track marketing departments are looking at family entertainment and evening attractions. The Maryland Horse Council and the Maryland Wineries Association are collaborating on "Decanter," a wine festival April 16 in the infield at Pimlico featuring equestrian demonstrations, Maryland wine and racing. Folks who thought they were in competition are realizing that they are allies in a larger struggle.

Horse racing is a part of the fabric of our state. It was hurt badly by the slots programs in neighboring states, but voters chose to address that imbalance with passage of our own slots legislation. We can show those voters that they made the right decision.

Race track owners are a bit like the horses that run on their tracks. Punishing them for what they did in the past doesn't really work, but they understand boundaries if we are consistent in applying them, and a little kindness goes a long way. We will be consistent in demanding that they offer a viable product for the industry and its fans, but we also need the flexibility in state law to allow us to feed some carrots from time to time. The governor's racing bill does that at no expense to taxpayers. It should pass.

Steuart Pittman Jr. is president of the Maryland Horse Council. His e-mail is dodonfarm@verizon.net.

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