A Horseman's Truthtelling About Slots
Frank Trigeiro loves to play the slots. Like his mother, who used to save nickels in a jar to take on her annual jaunts to Las Vegas, "I get totally captivated by the machines," he says. "I kind of lose it on slots."
Trigeiro loves the horses, too. In his first job as an accountant, he was assigned to audit the betting at a California track. "I just fell in love with everything about racing," he says. He spent the rest of his career in the horse game, including an eight-year stint as chief financial officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of the Laurel and Pimlico tracks.
So it's understandable if the big boys in the horse industry are a little upset with Frank Trigeiro right now. Because at 69, the retiree feels free to speak out about what he learned during a 30-year career. What he's saying is that the slots initiative Gov. Martin O'Malley will try to push through the legislature starting this week -- proposing up to 15,000 machines spread across the state, if voters say yes next year -- is "lousy economic policy," "an irrational form of gaming" and "a tremendous transfer of wealth from the state to the special interests who own the tracks."
Trigeiro hopes Maryland doesn't legalize slots. But if the state does go down that road, he wants taxpayers to know that the current plan is a colossal giveaway in which slots licenses will be handed out for next to nothing to track owners who may then sell those licenses for hundreds of millions. "That's money that should be going to the taxpayers but instead goes to huge corporate interests," Trigeiro says.
He's amazed at how easily slots advocates have persuaded Marylanders to see one-armed bandits as the salvation of the state's struggling horse industry. "There's absolutely no connection between slots and horse racing," Trigeiro says. "It's a totally different form of gambling with a totally different audience. I tell the horsemen: As these tracks go corporate, it's just a matter of time before some directors at the board meeting say, 'Why are we wasting money on these horse races that nobody goes to?' "
At Penn National, the horse track just north of Harrisburg, Pa., the races have continued while the big gambling company that owns the track has spent the past year building a $310 million casino. But with the grandstand out of commission, race fans have had to watch the contests on TVs in a small building near the paddock. The new Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course will have a 90-foot-long video dome, more than 2,000 slot machines and no grandstand.
Penn National Gaming, which owns 11 casinos, four tracks with slots and two without slots, this month completed a deal to buy Rosecroft Raceway, the long-struggling track in Fort Washington. Penn National paid $20 million for the track but gets to back out of the deal if Maryland doesn't legalize slots within six years.
O'Malley's plan makes no mention of Rosecroft or Prince George's County as a site for slots. But Trigeiro warns that "in this business, we always got a kick out of this mantra of 'limited slots.' That's like being a little bit pregnant. Once they start, this thing just keeps growing. Next year, it's more machines, and then it's table games, and none of it has anything to do with horses. Remember, not one place where they've legalized slots has increased interest in horse racing. The decline of horses is a cultural thing that we saw coming for 30 years."
Trigeiro, who resigned from his Maryland Jockey Club job in 1994 out of frustration over management's failure to focus on live racing rather than depending largely on betting on out-of-state races, says the state's horsemen have done a masterful job of persuading politicians to see slots as the savior of a fading way of life. "They talk about there being 30,000 employees in Maryland's horse industry," he says, chuckling. "I have to smile, because we made up that number 20 years ago. Most of that is the industry around pleasure horses, which won't get anything out of slots. When you look at cold, hard numbers, the racing industry in Maryland is pretty insignificant. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with 5,000 workers directly related to racing, including the feed-haulers and so on."
"I'm getting to the age where I look back and see what I see, and I see greed," says Trigeiro, who retired in 2003 after running the financial operations at Gulfstream Park in South Florida and who now lives in Laurel. "I've written enough checks to politicians to know that they listen to the contributors, to the point that you get to write the legislation. It's pretty hard to stop this stuff, but what's really sad to see is how much time and effort the politicians spend on this when there are so many more important things."
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