Racing Keeps Crumbling As Slots Issue Drags On
By Kent Baker
While opposing factions debate the merits and drawbacks, the issue of slot machine gambling is coming to a head in the state.
At the behest of Gov. Martin O'Malley, the General Assembly convened in a special session this week to consider his proposals designed to address Maryland's $1.7 billion fiscal deficit, including one calling for up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations. That is expected to generate millions of dollars in revenue.
Among the beneficiaries would be the horse racing industry, which is struggling amid competition from purses fattened in neighboring states by slot machine dollars. The proposal calls for up to $100 million to supplement purses and aid horse breeders and up to $40 million to the Racetrack Renewal Fund.
But the governor is also calling for a referendum among voters to decide whether to install the slot machines, a proposal certain to be hotly contested after years of bipartisan feuding among Democrats and Republicans. Some legislators maintain they -- not the public -- should decide the slots question and others balk at the idea of a special session in the first place.
Track management is confident that a referendum vote would pass, but is gravely concerned that gambling interests in neighboring states "would spend tens of millions of dollars to insure that the hundreds of millions that go into their coffers now would continue to do so," according to Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, referring to an effort to defeat the referendum. "That's the problem we're dealing with."
Without generating new revenue, the state faces considerable cutbacks in services.
The suggested sites for slots are in Baltimore, but not at Pimlico Race Course; Anne Arundel County near Laurel Park; Allegany County; Cecil County and Worcester County, near Ocean Downs harness track.
Maryland thoroughbred racing has undergone a series of slashes of purses and dates in recent months. The latest plan cuts one day of live racing weekly from the Laurel Park winter meeting with a shortage of purse money cited as responsible. There is also a strong possibility that the spring meet at Pimlico would be reduced by three weeks, ending after the Preakness.
In addition, officials may close Pimlico for training for an extended period, leaving trainers, backstretch workers and horses searching for new quarters.
The other difficulty is one of immediacy. If the slots issue goes to the voters, it would not happen for a year, leaving 2008 without any financial uplifting. If, in the meantime, there is no purse subsidy from the state, more racing cutbacks are inevitable.
"We'd like to think if the referendum moves forward, that there will be some consideration for a subsidy," Raffetto added.
He said "some grave concerns" also exist about the absence of the slots at Pimlico. "When looking at the whole package, the location in Baltimore [on the southwestern side of the city] is very disconcerting."
Obviously, the industry's choice is to receive some type of aid as rapidly as possible, which would mean either a subsidy from the state or the legislators tackling the slots issue on their own (and passing some sort of bill).
"Sooner is better than later," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "But it's a little early to say that a referendum puts a damper on everything. It all depends on how all this shakes out."
RALLY PLANNED IN ANNAPOLIS
Officials of the Maryland Jockey Club canceled live racing this Friday to enable its employees, horsemen and racing fans to attend a pro-slots rally on Lawyer's Mall in front of the State House, beginning at 9 a.m.
Entitled "Save the Maryland Horse Racing Industry," the rally precedes by two hours scheduled hearings in the legislature on the subject.
Buses will be provided for all those interested from Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the Bowie training center at 8:30 a.m.
The lost racing day is re-scheduled for Jan. 2 of next year.
Issue 2.44: November 1, 2007