11/14/2006 1:00AM

Ohio rejection of slots leaves tracks out in cold


TUCSON, Ariz. - He is not the classic Western gunman type, and never will be cast as John Wayne, nor mistaken for him.

But despite his demeanor - Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, describes him as "a political maverick with a low-key persona" - Ohio's senior U.S. senator, Republican George Voinovich, turned out to be a cold-blooded political killer last week.

Riding roughshod around the state, personally and with a robotic telephone barrage, he riddled Issue 3, Ohio's racino bill, with a two-gun attack. Defeat this bill, was Voinovich's message. It will only make nine guys rich.

The "nine guys" he was referring to were the seven who own race tracks in Ohio and a mysterious two others, presumably prominent Cleveland businessmen who might have profited from two stand-alone casinos in that city. Cleveland voters wanted them, but Voinovich and the rest of the state did not, and they were the ones left standing when the firing was over.

Not only standing, but standing tall, with 56.8 percent of them rejecting the racinos, and only six of Ohio's 88 counties voting for them.

One may conclude the "nine rich guys" line was deadliest in the shootout, but far harder to explain is how voters rejected the "Learn and Earn" platform on which the whole slot-machine issue was based.

Under that provision, 30 percent of all slot revenue would have gone to education, in the form of college scholarships for worthy Ohio students. Supporters of the idea said this would amount to $850 million a year, along with $230 million a year to local governments for economic development projects. Voters ignored that, and turned down gambling. It was not the first time. Ohioans now have rejected gambling bills three times in the last 12 years. This year they also turned down huge educational benefits with their votes.

A 24-year-old interviewed after the election presumably spoke for Ohio voters at large, as well as herself, when she told an Akron Beacon Journal reporter that she had voted against Issue 3, the slots bill, because "there are lots of other ways to raise college tuition," adding, "What they are, I don't know."

Neither do the thousands of others who voted against the racinos, but they now will have to figure out what they "other ways" may be.

As for Ohio's three Thoroughbred tracks - Thistledown in Cleveland, Beulah Park in Columbus, and River Downs in Cincinnati - and its four harness tracks - Northfield Park near Cleveland, Scioto Downs in Columbus, Lebanon Raceway near Cincinnati, and Toledo's Raceway Park (the Delaware County Fair, home of the famed Little Brown Jug, also has a five-day parimutuel meeting) - they now will have to fend for themselves and fight for horses.

That battle will not be easy, penned in without guns or bullets between Pennsylvania to the east and Indiana to the west.

Pennsylvania began its first slots operation this week at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, a harness track near Wilkes-Barre. But the state's other five tracks - Penn National near Harrisburg; Philadelphia Park; Presque Isle in Erie, which is being built; the harness track The Meadows near Pittsburgh; and the last licensee, which is still to be determined - will be joining Pocono as soon as possible.

Indiana does not have slots at Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, and those dual-breed tracks are not likely to get them any time soon, but both benefit hugely from built-in subsidies from the state's riverboat casinos.

The governor-elect of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, called on the state's General Assembly this week to pass a slots-at-tracks bill, and his fellow Democrat, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, wants them badly. But the state's speaker of the House, Michael Busch, still stands adamantly in the way, and some high-ranking Democrats think he again will frustrate the effort that outgoing governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. fought for futilely during three fractious legislative years.

A final word on Ohio. The gun-blasts that killed racinos were, as mentioned earlier, one barrel of a two-gun attack. A second blast of severe damage was inflicted when Ohioans also voted for a strict smoking ban in restaurants, bars, and other gathering spots, including racetracks. Ohio's tracks were not exempted from the ban, as in Illinois.

That pleases health experts and environmentalists, but it casts a smokeless pall over the heavily besieged tracks of Ohio. All they can do now is take a very deep breath and try to survive the best they can, and wait for a fourth try. This one cost them $20 million, and they will have to lick those wounds as well.