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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