Updated on 09/17/2011 1:19PM

Squeeze play endangers Maryland


WASHINGTON - The debate over slot machines in Maryland has been filled with hyperbole, but it is no exaggeration to say that the future of the state's Thoroughbred industry is at stake.

Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee was to begin its hearing on a measure passed by the Senate that would allow the machines in three racetracks and three non-track locations. A slots bill died in the House last year, largely because of the opposition of Speaker Michael Busch, who doesn't appear to care if Maryland racing dies, too. People connected with the sport know that their livelihoods are in jeopardy, and many of them were going to mass at a pro-slots rally on the mall in front of the State House.

But it is not only in Annapolis that the fate of Maryland racing is being decided. Slots have also been a prime topic in Harrisburg, Pa., and it appears increasingly probable that Pennsylvania will approve the devices. While a rejection of slots by Annapolis would be devastating to the horse business, a rejection coupled with legalization of slots in Pennsylvania would be catastrophic.

Although the subject of slot machines arouses passionate arguments, the question of whether to legalize them in Maryland has already been decided - or at least it should have been, if the state were a democracy rather than a Buschocracy. Robert Ehrlich ran for governor with slots-at-racetracks a central part of his platform, and the electorate gave him a mandate. Opinion polls show that Marylanders favor slots by a solid margin.

The Legislature ought to be debating the best way to employ the machines: Should they be located in racetracks? It is reasonable to question whether cash-strapped state governments should share the profits with the horse industry.

But it is an inescapable fact that Maryland's neighbors have all resolved this question the same way. West Virginia put slots at the Charles Town Races. Delaware put them in Delaware Park. The Pennsylvania plan, favored by Gov. Ed Rendell, would put slots in 12 locations - four casinos and eight racetracks (some of which don't even exist yet). This competition has created a crisis for Maryland racing. Slots money has boosted purses in Delaware and West Virginia to levels that were once unimaginable, luring horses from Maryland and reducing the quality of the competition at Laurel and Pimlico. As the quality sinks, people bet less on the races - and the track's revenue drops. If slots come to Pennsylvania, causing purses at Philadelphia Park and Penn National to skyrocket, owners and trainers will have so many more lucrative options that there will be little reason to run horses in Maryland.

Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis said that slot machines at Pennsylvania tracks would produce "a massive rejuvenation of their racing, largely at our expense." If this happens and Maryland's tracks do not get slots of their own, he declared, "We will not be able to sputter along the way we have the last few years. It will be difficult for us to survive."

Busch has been adamant that the state shouldn't help the racing industry. "If the Preakness wasn't here, would anybody care?" he said in December. "I think the amount of people who care is next to none. How do I justify taking state money and subsidizing the racing industry?"

This position contrasts sharply with other states' attitudes toward their horse industries. Charles Town was a decrepit, minor-league track that went bankrupt, but the people of West Virginia chose to rescue it with slots money. Delaware Park couldn't survive on its own merits, either, but the state rescued it, too. Pennsylvania has little horse racing tradition, and Philadelphia Park is a soulless parimutuel factory, but politicians there are nevertheless prepared to transform it with slots money.

Yet the state in the region that is most reluctant to help its horse industry is the one with a long racing tradition, with an event - the Preakness - that is part of the state's identity, with a horse-breeding industry that is important to its economy.

Opponents of slot machines say they don't want to enrich "greedy track owners" and seem to think that those owners are the horse industry. They ought to be thinking instead about Maryland's breeders.

According to a recent op-ed article in the Baltimore Sun by John Lee Jr. and Grove Miller, horse farms constitute 10 percent of the land in the state and account for 20,000 jobs. Maryland's Thoroughbred breeding industry has long been one of the most successful and innovative in the nation, and now it is in trouble, through no fault of its own, because it is being dragged down by the condition of racing in the state. For a Maryland politician to turn his back on the horse industry is akin to a Pennsylvania politician saying that the steel industry should be allowed to die. Yet that's the stance that the slots foes have taken.

Critics of the horse business in Maryland say that it is responsible for its own problems, that the management of the tracks has been ineffective, and that the industry's various factions have hurt themselves with their endless infighting. These criticisms are valid, but no amount of inspired leadership could overcome the competitive imbalance created by slots-fueled purses in neighboring states. There is only one way left for revitalizing horse racing in Maryland, and that possibility is in the hands of the state's politicians now.

(c) 2004 The Washington Post