10/31/2006 12:00AM

Slots the key weapon in border wars

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Like them or despise them, slot machines will change the dynamics of horse racing in 2007 in a number of ways, some perhaps not anticipated.

With Ohio about to vote them in or out next Tuesday, with Pennsylvania's governor Ed Rendell signing them into law this week, with the survival of Maryland racing at stake without them in the face of this new competition next door, and with Yonkers Raceway clearly in a position to have an impact on the New York City area's Thoroughbred track business, the issue of purist unhappiness over slots at tracks is irrelevant.

Like China, looming huge as friend or foe, threat or partner, slots at tracks are here, and are not about to disappear.

If Ohio's seven tracks get them next week, Indiana's riverboat subsidies and offtrack betting facilities may not be enough to offset the lack of slots at the state's two tracks, Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, both dual-breed operations.

Michigan, on Ohio's northern borders, is in trouble now, with gaudy slots across the Detroit river in Windsor, Ontario, and an even gaudier new casino likely to be built there.

Maryland racing faces a dire threat unless it is saved from intense competition by a new governor or a redirected legislature amenable to slots. Despite sincere good intentions by Magna Entertainment Corp. to retain the state's jewel, the Preakness could be endangered as Maryland racing's treasured institution.

Illinois and California want and need racinos, but are not likely to get them soon. California, vastly more isolated and beset by Indian casino competition at every turn, suffers from short fields now and the prospect of even shorter ones without slots.

In the East, the New York Racing Association, or Empire or Excelsior, both breathing down its neck as would-be successors, will have slots, but will not have the entire New York market.

A patient Tim Rooney, whose father, Art, built an empire - including Yonkers Raceway and the Pittsburgh Steelers - that his five sons have run, has seen his years of patience pay off. Tim Rooney could have sold Yonkers Raceway and its 90 acres smack on one of the world's busiest expressways to developers any time he chose in the last five years, but a gambler, like his father, he bet slots would arrive. They have, with revenue exceeding $3 million a week with only 1,870 of the racino's potential 5,500 or more slots in operation.

If anyone thinks the new Yonkers will not intercept Aqueduct-bound slots players, they either are engaging in wishful thinking or do not know the perils of the Major Deegan Expressway south of Yonkers by the George Washington Bridge, or the agonies of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or the jam-packed transverse highways leading across major bridges to NYRA-land.

Aqueduct will have Manhattan and Brooklyn and Long Island to itself, but gamblers from New York's Westchester County and the populous suburbs north and west of it in New York and northern New Jersey are not likely to prolong their journeys beyond Yonkers and the harness track that once called itself the Giant of Trotting and now will be known as Empire City at Yonkers, invoking its rich Thoroughbred history in its new name.

The Meadowlands in New Jersey, from 1976 and since, ended the reigns of both Yonkers and the now nonexistent World Capital of Harness Racing, Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. But even the Meadowlands, the world's preeminent harness track, will not be exempt from Yonkers' new slots muscles, either in horse supply or betting customers. It is highly unlikely that even the huge clout of Atlantic City casinos will be able to withstand the political and economic pressure for long in a state where horse breeding is an important industry, and its constituents have loud and powerful voices in the state capital of Trenton. An accommodation is likely to be forthcoming, sooner or later, and a racino nine miles from Times Square in the huge New Jersey bedroom suburbs west of Manhattan would seriously affect Aqueduct and Belmont business.

Much depends on Ohio, as it does in national politics. Ohio State's Buckeyes and Michigan's Wolverines will get huge national coverage for their Nov. 18 battle that should determine a collegiate football's national title finalist, but the outcome of voting 12 days earlier in Ohio will spread domino distress or far-flung joy over horse racing across America.