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The Decline of Horses, The Irrelevance of Slots

No matter that there's hardly anyone around, an afternoon at the racetrack carries an earthy elegance that feels almost timeless. The horse game maintains its dignity even on a day when there are 28 people in the grandstand, and three of them are equipped with oxygen tanks.

But let's be real. I love the sounds and sights, the smell and the thrill of horse racing, but the sport is faltering, the business is in a downward spiral and Maryland's rich equestrian tradition is headed for the history books.

At Laurel Park on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, only 60 people step out to the rail to watch the fifth race. Inside the betting concourse, a few hundred people sit with their backs to the track, their eyes glued to video screens pumping in race coverage from hundreds of miles away.

This is the business whose shaky future has hijacked Maryland's state government. Year after year, thick gobs of lobbying dollars and piles of campaign contributions feed a fight that never ends. Once again this season, the battle over legalizing slot machines is set to dominate state politics.

What's remarkable about the eternal slots debate is that pretty much everyone agrees on most aspects of the issue. Horse tracks are hurting. Surrounding states make a bundle off slots. People love to go play the slots. The state badly needs cash.

Visiting with Lou Raffetto, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Laurel Park and Pimlico in Baltimore, I was surprised to find that some important people in the horse business agree that there's something depressing about slots parlors. The sight of row upon row of old folks whiling away their hours pumping dollars into machines does not exactly stir the soul.

"I don't really get the slots thing," Raffetto says. "But it's entertainment for people. It's people spending their discretionary income."

Now we reach the dividing line. For opponents such as Peter Franchot, the state comptroller, slots are a pernicious and unfair tax on the poor, a dishonest way to raise state revenue. Okay, says Raffetto, "but then what does he think the lottery is?"

Any horseman can tell you about the state lottery. It was the beginning of the end for horse racing. Suddenly, people could bet legally without going to a track. Then came keno and telephone and online wagering.

So it's only right and just, Raffetto says, that some of that off-site gambling be brought back to the track, not just to line the pockets of the racing companies, but also to save Maryland's horse industry -- the farms, the open space, the breeders and trainers.

He concedes that the horse people and slots people are two distinct audiences. "I used to go to Delaware and walk into the slots, and it feels like 2000 in there," Raffetto says. "And then I'd walk into the horse side of the building, and it feels like 1960."

If the connection between slots and racing is so tenuous, why should the state prop up a sport that has lost its place in the popular culture?

Maybe it's time for horse racing to find ways to compete as a sport or just yield to market forces. "Other entertainment industries are doing well without using gambling as a crutch," says Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents the Laurel area in the state legislature. "Frankly, horse racing needs to be more of a family event, like baseball or football. Laurel is already depressing-looking; with slots, it will only get worse."

Raffetto believes the money from slots can fund a renovation that would make Laurel attractive to a new generation of fans. Without slots, he says, it's pretty much game over. Laurel has withered from 250 racing days a year to 184 this year and will shrink to 140 next year if lawmakers in Annapolis don't go for slots this winter, Raffetto says. Tracks don't bother to open on Sunday afternoons anymore: "There's no point in going up against football," he says.

In the coming weeks, we will hear endless promises about the splendors that will spill from slot machines. Somehow, in the process of switching from a Republican governor to a Democratic one, Maryland voters managed to move nowhere on slots. The state flipped from Bob Ehrlich's cheery dismissals of government as the answer to what ails us to Martin O'Malley's earnest evocation of the state as an agent of help and community. But we're stuck with the same fantasy about how legalizing slots will deliver us from debt, steer clear of social ills and save the horse industry.

Despite the beauty of the animals and the excitement of the contest, the track is about realism. Ask Jerry Cunningham, the only fan who was out at the rail with binoculars Friday. He's 83, lives in Aberdeen and comes down to Laurel at least a couple of days a week after dropping his wife off at work. He's all for slots, figures it's a way for "a guy to play the horses while the wife sits down at the machines." But he'd rather the whole slots debate lose the romance bit.

"It's all about the money here," Cunningham says. "Horses are very nice animals, very pretty, but the only ones here enjoying the sport are the horses."

By Marc Fisher |  September 9, 2007; 8:46 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

funny, isn't it? horseracing needs corporate funded slots to succeed, and is told that it needs to find a way to compete on its own. Baseball needs government backed $700m stadiums, and we are told it's only reasonable, that we need baseball. Maybe Baltimore should drop $100m into cleaning up Laurel park, bonds, of course, no cost to the taxpayers. surely the economic development and protection of open space is worth making multimillionares more money, right?

Posted by: northzax | September 9, 2007 4:23 PM

Who cares if people are so stupid they spend their money on slots? It's fun, and it's not my problem if dumb people play them even if they can't afford to. Poor people are poor because they are dumb as a brick. There's nothing you can do to change that. So bring on the slots to Maryland! I'm tired of driving to Charles Town.

Posted by: Fred | September 9, 2007 6:14 PM

Thanks for a rationale discussion of the issue. While racing is a lovely sport, it is a sport of choice for very few - maybe its just to gentile for the rest of us - and I see no reason the tracks should be supported in this hobby. If an argument can be made to have slots based on their own benefit (and I'd posit that it cannot) it would be another matter, but this whole nexus of slots and racing is a non sequitur.

Posted by: Haggis | September 9, 2007 6:20 PM

I do not think slots are going to save the racing industry unless half the money is given to the owners.
I would not mind seeing slots, only because they are fun, I buy lotto tickets so what is one more vice-I know my limits- I don't smoke or drink.

I think slots should be in every social club as it was prior to Glendenning(KoC, Elks, Moose) Fire stations(Greenbelt firehouse) and maybe even bars and restaurants.

Many restaurants lost business when they banned smoking-maybe slots will bring the people back.

As for horse racing- I don't play the horses, and with all the tax breaks that horse breeder receive, I do not believe they deserve anymore breaks- and I do not want to support them-there are other ways to bring back the glory that once was horse racing in this states- let the owners explore those ways.

Posted by: BobF | September 9, 2007 6:35 PM

Slots might save the horseracing industry in Maryland for a while, but PA, DE, and WVA have them too! If Maryland wants to attract more bettors to the track then the need to do the opposite of the other states. They need to approve TABLE GAMING instead of slots, not only will it be a large windfall for the state it would help the tracks as well.

Posted by: BrianH | September 9, 2007 7:38 PM

Who cares about horses? Not this generation.
Slots are the issue, not the phony one of extending the life of a moribund industry that won't admit it's all but dead.

Posted by: joe c | September 9, 2007 9:28 PM

Marc, thanks for the focus on this issue, it needs more attention.

Fisher writes: "At Laurel Park on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, only 60 people step out to the rail to watch the fifth race. Inside the betting concourse, a few hundred people sit with their backs to the track, their eyes glued to video screens pumping in race coverage from hundreds of miles away."..........................

The few hundred were obviously more interested in betting on matters elsewhere, than the racing on their doorstep. Not a good omen for the Md. bloodstock industry. Slots are just a hiatus on the road to reorganization of the Md. horse industry.

Fisher writes: "This is the business whose shaky future has hijacked Maryland's state government."..............................

Too true. If Martin O'Malley, Mickey Miller, and friends want to give Marylanders the opportunity to "experiment" with slots, let's start with a bank of slots in the lobby of every state and local government office building in every county. Particular emphasis to be given to state government buildings in Annapolis. Taxpayers are already paying the rent, let's leverage that equity. If that proves successful, then consider expansion. If unsuccessful, abandon.

Instead of everyone having to go to Laurel, Pimlico, or wherever, make it convenient for everyone, so that they can go to the local school, library, cop shop, or other permitting office.

Fisher writes: "Laurel has withered from 250 racing days a year to 184 this year and will shrink to 140 next year if lawmakers in Annapolis don't go for slots this winter, Raffetto says."................................

Who says we need or want 250/180/140/ or even fifty racing days a year at Laurel/Pimlico etc. particularly if only sixty people are watching on a sunny Friday afternoon. The industry might be better served by having fewer but bigger events. DUH!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 9, 2007 9:29 PM

The 09-29pm comment is attributable to yours truly.

Posted by: Count Bobulescu | September 9, 2007 9:39 PM

Instead of visiting Laurel or Rosecroft or one of the Maryland tracks, head over to Charles Town where the slots have made a huge difference in the track conditions and the quality of the races. I understand the revenue also helps offset state budget deficits as well. Be sure to look around the parking lot before you head inside. The cars have mostly MD or VA tags.

Laurel only races during the day - My husband and I would love to go more often but, unfortunately, we have 9-5 jobs.

People are going to gamble - didn't the Post publish a story on bingo and the pull tab games sold there?

Posted by: nevada | September 9, 2007 10:38 PM

I don't understand how Mr. Fisher could write an entire column about the decline of horseracing in Maryland without addressing the central reason: Slots-enhanced purses in West Virginia and Delaware (and now Pennsylvania). Those slots-enhanced purses brought racing back from the dead in West Virginia and Delaware, but at the cost of smaller fields and lesser horses in Maryland than in previous years.

Maryland racing can compete against neighboring states quite well, thank you very much, as long as ALL states have slots or ALL states don't have slots.

Unfortunately, without slots, Maryland racing is bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Posted by: hz hackenbush | September 9, 2007 11:19 PM

What a pity that people have forgotten simple math: your odds of having a winning ticket in a horse race (especially with the proliferation of short fields), even if you know NOTHING about handicapping, are so far superior to ever winning at slots or the lottery. The difference is now the instant gratification mentality: most people simply want the 'big' payout/hit, i.e., slots/lottery, versus the trickle of $5 here, $10 there, via win, place, show. But I still enjoy the sight of someone betting a horse just because it's pretty, or has dapples or because they like the jockey/silks...and they cash in on their reasoning. :)
Yes, there is too much live racing, with concurrent meets in neighboring jurisdictions, with too few good horses to sustain all those cards. Despite all of that, Maryland, with its history, tradition and legacy, is still a place I want to win, with our horses and wagers alike. I hope the legislature there figures out a way to make it competitive again on the gaming front.

Posted by: MD Racing Fan | September 10, 2007 11:44 AM

Taxpayer subsidy of sports makes sense only if there's a respectable return on investment. Peel away the veneer of "elegance," and horse racing and gaming are all about money, and nostalgia shouldn't even enter the equation. While it's true that West Virginia and Delaware have used slots-enhanced purses to resuscitate horse racing, attendance will steadily decline, eventually forcing the Powers That Be to pull the plug. Without slots, the Preakness probably will head to Florida within 10 years. But even with slots, the Triple Crown will be but a shadow of itself by 2020. Young people just aren't interested.

Posted by: Matthew | October 6, 2007 11:52 AM

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