CHESAPEAKE CITY – On a cloudless day in rural Maryland, Gov. Robert Ehrlich stood at the corner of a field and drew two very different pictures of the state’s possible future.
To his right, the rolling farmland of Maryland, home to horse breeders who he says help contribute billions to the state’s economy.
To his left, rows of cookie-cutter houses in the planned developments of Delaware. No farms. No horses.
“Without an investment in horse farms, Maryland is going to look like that,” Ehrlich said, pointing to the lines of white homes. “That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
On Friday, Ehrlich toured Winbak Farm – 2,300 acres and the state’s largest horse breeder and nursery. Ehrlich said came to stress the importance of horse breeders to Maryland’s economy and what could happen if the long tradition is allowed to go extinct.
He also went to make one more pitch on the importance of slot machines at Maryland race tracks.
Without slots, he said, Maryland’s horse farms will lose business, and already shrinking farmlands will grow even smaller. Eventually, open spaces will become confined, paved developments, Maryland will lose a large source of economic revenue, and the Chesapeake Bay will grow unhealthier from construction and damage to the state’s watershed.
Ehrlich’s trip made little impression on Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland. She’d watched the event on television and was angry at the governor’s lobbying.
“It’s a lot of bunk,” she said. “Racing needs to save itself. It’s only going to enrich already rich racing guys.”
According to Ehrlich, horse farms are the first link in a $5.2 billion per year industry for Maryland, and help make possible more than 20,000 jobs statewide – horse breeders, horse handlers, farmers, suppliers and other positions.
Winbak’s Chesapeake City site alone – with its nearly 1,000 horses – is responsible for at least $24 million of growth in the local economy, according to Bill Gerweck, Winbak’s general manager.
“You take away racehorses from Maryland, and you’ll lose the (economic) infrastructure support,” Gerweck said.
Joe Thomson, Winbak’s owner, agreed Maryland can’t afford to let this source of revenue disappear.
“A farm is not like any other business,” he said. “Once you close it up, they put up houses . . . and they don’t knock down houses to build a farm.”
Thomson said Winbak will sell 300 yearlings this year, but only six in Maryland because the state isn’t competitive with other states’ racing industries. For the horse industry to survive, Maryland will have to improve its system and increase prize amounts for race track victors.
“Until that time, in order to compete we’re going to have to supplement it with other means,” he said, referring to slot machines that could dramatically increase race track revenue, and keep Maryland’s horse industry kicking.
According to Ehrlich, slots revenue also means keeping Maryland’s farmland away from developers and keeping the Chesapeake Bay watershed secure. Eric Olson, Sierra Club spokesman, said developments in rural Maryland could have a terrible effect on the bay.
“A watershed needs land to absorb water and filter it,” he said. Development can mean damage from construction equipment runoff and from impermeable surfaces, such as roads, driveways and parking lots, that prevent the ground from filtering rain.
“Right now the Chesapeake Bay is not the highest water quality it should be or could be,” he said. “All types of pollutants that can harm living things would get in the water” with more development.
When asked if the horse industry could be saved without slots revenue, Ehrlich was adamant.
“Possibly in the past – 25 years ago, sure – but given the nature of competition (today), the short answer is ‘No’,” he said.
NOcasiNO sees it differently: The state is not in the business of propping up the racing industry, Knickelbein said. “Horse racing needs to stand on its own,” she said. “We need to try to save it, but they need to help themselves.”
Knickelbein said NOcasiNO is against all gambling in Maryland, because of its negative effect on small businesses and the lower class.
Slot machine gambling has had a difficult road in Maryland the last few years. Ehrlich twice tried to get programs through the General Assembly, with revenue devoted to schools, and twice has been stymied in the House of Delegates. Most recently, plans for a special legislative session disintegrated, leaving Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, blaming each other.
Ehrlich said Friday he will not move forward with slots-for-horses legislation until he had a commitment from Busch.
“I’m not going to invest one second of my time if it means wasting my time,” Ehrlich said.
Busch could not be reached for comment.