10/30/2008 11:00PM

Slots apt to be approved in Maryland

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Voters in Maryland appear to be ready to authorize 15,000 slot machines at five locations in the state through an election-day referendum on Tuesday, a vote that would automatically provide hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the racing industry.

A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post showed that 62 percent of likely voters supported the referendum, whereas 36 percent opposed it. Supporters of the referendum have contended that it will save the struggling racing industry while shoring up the state's finances during what will almost certainly be a prolonged recession.

The referendum would guarantee that Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen receive $100 million in subsidies annually from the five casinos, no matter where they are located. In addition, racetracks in the state - including Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course - would receive an estimated $40 million in subsidies for capital improvements.

The referendum would permit five casinos in the state. A state agency would award the casino licenses in a process that would likely take at least six months. Laurel is located in a county that would be authorized for a casino license, but the track likely would be only one of a number of bidders.

Alan Foreman, the chief counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the poll results were encouraging to horsemen and breeders in the state who are convinced that Mayland's racing industry would disappear without subsidies.

"All you can do is hope that the numbers hold," Foreman said. "It would give us an opportunity to rebuild and restore this industry. It puts us back in play."

If the referendum passes, casinos are not expected to be up and running for two years. The subsidies to the racing industry would not begin to flow until the slot machines are taking wagers. Analysts in Maryland have estimated that the machines will generate $600 million in revenue to the state annually.

The referendum will also likely play a large part in determining the direction taken by the owner of Laurel and Pimlico, Magna Entertainment Corp., which has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The passage of the referendum would likely give Magna the ability to market the tracks to buyers or strike a deal with a casino company for development rights.

Other Election Day issues

The Maryland referendum is one of four different ballot measures on Tuesday that have the potential to impact racing. In addition to those ballot measures, the party leadership of the senate in New York is in play, with Democrats vying for a majority for the first time in four decades. If the Democrats take control, then pressure to install slot machines at Belmont Park will likely dry up, though the political winds in New York are notoriously difficult to predict.

In Arkansas, voters will be asked whether or not to support the establishment of a lottery. Recent polls have showed that an overwhelming majority supports the measure. Five states that neighbor Arkansas already have lotteries. The state's two racetracks - Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis - command Arkansas's gambling market share.

In Massachusetts, support to ban greyhound racing through a referendum is running high, according to early polls. The measure is being pressed by groups who contend that dog racing is inhumane and cruel. If passed, the state's two dog tracks would be forced to close by 2010.

In Ohio, voters will be asked whether to approve a lone casino in a small town halfway between Cincinnati and Columbus. Three times in the past 18 years, voters rejected measures expanding gambling in the state.