08/18/2008 11:00PM

Slots go from luxury to necessity


TUCSON, Ariz. - Philosophical issues aside - philosophy runs second to psychology every time they meet - slot machines have carved American racing into two separate parts.

The issue now is not whether slots ruin the purity of racing, what's left of it, but whether racing can live without them.

Those tracks with slots will survive, at least as far as purses are concerned, unless the people who authorized them decide to disable them. That threat became apparent in Kansas City, Kan., recently when the Woodlands announced it was joining the list of the departed, unwilling to handle a 60-percent tax on its 600 slots. The track was eligible to get 800 more, but didn't want them on those terms, and would not struggle against such repressive taxation. Without a last-minute reprieve, the Woodlands will close Aug. 27, less than two weeks after Bay Meadows in California leaves the racing scene.

Meanwhile, Harrah's Chester Casino and Racetrack - note the stated priority in the name - offers a glimpse of the other side of the coin.

A harness track, it has risen from a concept questioned by many into one of the more successful racing operations in the country, overcoming and uplifting its surroundings, and instilling pride in a town that had no reason to have any before its arrival.

New and shiny, it was built in Chester, Pa., on the Delaware River just south of the Philadelphia airport. The man who foresaw the possibilities was a former Pennsylvania legislator named Joe Lashinger, a get-it-done guy who was running Pocono Downs at the gateway to Pennsylvania's Pocono mountain resort area at the time.

Some scoffed at his idea, particularly the notion of building in Chester, but Lashinger, one smart guy, had done his homework and was determined to convert an old abandoned industrial site by the river into a gleaming gaming and racing venue. Harrah's shared his thinking and took over. Pocono Downs and its slots wound up owned by Mohegan Sun, also successful.

The track in depressed Chester - or at least the track's purse account - is awash with money.

Last Sunday, it offered $2.38 million in purses for its 13-race card. In a state where blue laws banned the Sunday sale of liquor, here is what Chester's horsemen raced for Sunday afternoon:

Two $500,000 purses.

One $350,000 purse.

Two for $200,000.

One for $150,000.

Two for $100,000.

One for $75,000.

One for $40,000.

Three for $35,000. One of those - the 13th race - was canceled when a horse fell and three others fell over him, sending two of the sport's top drivers to the hospital. Two others, and all four horses, walked away from the wreck.

It was slots money that funded the Chester bonanza, and that drives its rich weekday overnights.

In next-door Delaware, legislators are growing edgy about losing customers to Pennsylvania. They are talking about sports betting, as are the solons of New Jersey. A major difference is that grandfathered Delaware can do it and New Jersey cannot, under federal law.

Round Table hears worthy proposal

The shadow of federal intervention cast its long shadow over the gathering of racing leaders at the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last Sunday.

The solid concerns and proposals offered there would affect all racehorses, but were generated by one. When Eight Belles fell, she began contributing more in death than she did in life. Her name was invoked a number of times Sunday. If she provides the impetus for racing to do things it should have done long ago, she will be the horse of the decade and beyond.

In that regard, Alan Foreman, perhaps the smartest guy in the room, suggested one centralized, racing-owned testing laboratory, to provide uniformity and state-of-the-art technology nationwide.

The idea is admirable, as is belling the cat, with similar problems.

Foreman bemoaned 18 separate testing laboratories, and rightly so. Perhaps he and the equally persuasive Scot Waterman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium can talk states into agreeing.

But those laboratories, at places like Iowa State and Cornell and the University of California at Davis and in Florida and elsewhere have generated pride and profit. Getting the states to abandon them may be as difficult as getting racing to fund one big facility with the latest in very expensive testing equipment. Selling that idea may be like beating Michael Phelps in water, with you picking your stroke and distance. If Foreman can pull it off, racing has its Man of the Year.

* Speaking of great men, racing lost one last week, and I lost a friend and colleague of six decades, when California's Bob Benoit died. He raised track photography to new levels, was a superb publicist, ran Hollywood Park as GM for a while, and charmed the lives of all who knew him.