Friday, May 18, 2007


A Preakness Weekend look at Maryland Racing

Earlier this week, Soccer Dad posted some thoughts on Maryland Racing: Soccer Dad: Decline of horse racing in maryland. He concludes:

“I'm against subsidies to any industry. I'm also not convinced that slots are a great idea. It might just be it's time to let horse industry in Maryland die.”

I’m probably somewhat in tune with the philosophical underpinnings that lead to such a conclusion but I can’t sign on to the conclusive sentiment. [Full disclosure: I really enjoy a day at the track.]

There was a time when Maryland racing was among the better national circuits. If it wasn’t in the Top Tier, it was certainly in shouting distance. As recently as 15 years ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that Delaware or West Virginia would have been worthy competitors in attracting the quality mid-Atlantic thoroughbreds.

No longer. The advent of slots in those two states has allowed them to significantly increase their purses, their facilities and their foot traffic – and much of that foot traffic arrived in cars bearing Maryland licenses. Now Pennsylvania has joined their ranks.

I agree with Soccer Dad as to a general aversion to subsidies to any industry. But on slots, I’m ambivalent. Were slots to come back to Maryland, they’d probably not coax a dime out of me. But being the pro-choice guy I am in so many aspects of life, I don’t have any moral or philosophical reasons to oppose letting others spend their money that way. But I do have some reservations:

  1. Slots should be legal because it’s a matter of individual choice not because it can help save an important industry. While the state has certainly not proven to be a friendly place for the business (or many businesses), the incompetence of the industry’s ownership (*cough*Joe de Francis*cough*) of late has been staggering. (The jury is still out on new owners Magna Entertainment.)
  2. Horse racing should have no more claim to provide slots than the corner grocery store and
  3. Providing the government another stream of income is simply providing the government an additional – vice alternative -stream of income. In Maryland, that is never a good idea.

Slots have been a political issue since 2002 and the election of Bob Ehrlich. Legalizing slots was an important part of his campaign but as we learned, elections mean mandates only when Democrats say they do. So, Speaker Busch was free to impose his own sense of morality on the rest of the state. Since he is not an identified member of the so-called Religious Right, this has been considered acceptable behavior:

“In the three years since Busch became speaker, he has never been coy about his views on slots. Lawmakers have mused over the notion that the roots of his opposition lie with the gambling problems that consumed his father, who died in 1997 in a flophouse on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
“But the burly, silver-haired speaker brushes off that suggestion, saying he merely wants to prevent the state from handing out valuable gaming licenses to a few well-heeled, politically connected insiders.
"I just don't think slots is good public policy," Busch said Friday, after the legislation passed the House.”
Md. Speaker Could Control Fate of Slots (

Well, of course, a lot of us think he is just full of …. And that his opposition to slots will be waning now that a Democrat is back in the Governor’s Mansion and Democrats everywhere will be seeking an alternative to raising taxes to pay for the so-called structural deficit that they’ve imposed on the state with their previous legislative spending sprees.

Part of the problem with slots, of course, is that they really don’t require much of the state beyond just the issuance of a license. In other words, the racing industry is just seeking authorization for an additional revenue stream, not a handout. And let’s face it: our state Democrats don’t really know how to interact with a constituency that doesn’t have its hand out.

So I say let the tracks have the Slots…or Video Poker…or whatever….but also let slots go to other locations. And while they are at it, open more Off-track-Betting facilities (hint! hint! the Inner Harbor) and reduce the required takeouts from each dollar wagered. Preakness Weekend is uniquely Maryland and perhaps our greatest annual event (although a family member’s college graduation in Boston will preempt my attendance this year). So I am optimistic that something will be done to allow our tracks to compete if, for no other reason, than I doubt that Governor O’Malley and the Democrats want to go down as the governor and party that lost the Preakness.

My conclusion: If the horse racing industry in Maryland is to die, let’s at least make sure it’s not because the state is stepping on the oxygen supply tubing.

Side note: In the Kentucky Derby, I bet a total of $40 which included a $2 exacta on Street Sense-Hard Spun (ridden by Maryland-based Mario Pino). That paid $101.60 so I did OK.

For Saturday’s Preakness: As impressed as I was with Street Sense, I wasn’t so impressed as to bet him at 7-5. On the other hand, I loved Hard Spun’s wire-to-wire performance in Kentucky. Betting the Preakness, I’ll have Hard Spun on top of a lot of exactas as well as to win.

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