12/07/2004 12:00AM

Meeker flags dangers of slots

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The racing industry should tread carefully while embracing slot machines, said Tom Meeker, the chairman and chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc., during a rare public speech at the Racing and Gaming Summit on Tuesday in Tucson, Ariz.

Meeker, who rarely attends conferences but is considered one of the most influential racing executives in the country, said racetracks that pushed for legislation to install slot machines in order to address state budget deficits would pay a price in the long run when legislatures seek to extract more money from the gambling operations. He said racetracks should seek slot machines only by making the case that the revenue would make racing and agribusiness in the states stronger.

"If we allow this to continue, if we fall prey to the belief that we are going to be a solution for budget deficits, then racing will suffer, and indeed it will be threatened," Meeker said.

Churchill is seeking slot machines for its tracks in Kentucky, but legislative efforts there have so far been unsuccessful, as have efforts in California, where Churchill owns Hollywood Park. Churchill also recently purchased Fair Grounds in Louisiana, which runs a small slot-machine operation, and this year, voters in Florida, where Churchill owns Calder Race Course, passed a referendum allowing voters in two counties to determine whether slot machines should be legal.

Meeker, who said he threw away a speech prepared for him by Churchill's communications staff, talked freely about several subjects during the speech, and he took several swipes at Magna Entertainment, Churchill's chief competitor, along with totalizator companies, a frequent target of Meeker when speaking privately.

Meeker also criticized racetracks that have installed slot machines and failed to use the revenue to improve their racing facilities. He said racing is a capital-intensive business that needs to upgrade its properties in order to draw more customers.

"It bothers me, it really bothers me, to walk into a racetrack that has slot machines and you look to the left, where the racing part is, and see these terrible facilities," Meeker said.

Churchill is in the midst of a $170 million renovation of its flagship racetrack in Louisville, in part because of anticipation that slot machines will be legalized in Kentucky within the next several years.

Meeker closed his remarks with a request that racing officials bring passion to their jobs and work on finding solutions for the problems that plague the sport.

"If you look over the last 10 years at racing's report card, we haven't done too well," Meeker said. "We haven't solved our problems."