ANNAPOLIS – Turning up the heat on the General Assembly to approve slot machine legislation, the company that controls Maryland racing temporarily cancelled one of the state’s most prestigious races because it said it lacks the money to offer an attractive purse.
“We’re in deep doo-doo here with racing in Maryland,” John Franzone, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission, told legislators Thursday at a briefing on the health of the state’s racing industry.
“For the past five years we’ve had nothing as the other states have built these arsenals against us with gaming.”
Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates both Pimlico and Laurel, did not directly link the decision to suspend the Pimlico Special to the General Assembly’s refusal for the last four years to approve slot machine gambling as a way of helping the state’s ailing racing industry.
However, in a statement announcing the cancellation of what the Jockey Club called the “legendary” Pimlico Special, Raffetto said:
“Unfortunately, we have no choice. We have limited purse monies available, are facing increasing competition from growing slot-fueled purses in West Virginia and Delaware” and, later this year, Pennsylvania.
The $500,000 Pimlico Special is the second most prestigious race on the Maryland racing calendar, behind only the Preakness. It is one of only three Grade I races run annually in the state.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the briefing was to help new committee members understand the status of the industry in the state. But the afternoon quickly turned into a question-and-answer session on the potential impact of slot machines at Maryland racetracks.
Representatives of the racing industry came armed with poster boards detailing flow charts and statistics, and said that the larger purses, available in the surrounding states were essentially the result of slots at their racetracks. With more attractive prize money being paid to winning owners in Pennsylvania or Delaware they said, horse owners and breeders were taking their business elsewhere and leaving the state permanently.
“Quite frankly, this is New Orleans,” Alan Foreman, spokesman for the Maryland Horsemen’s Association, said, referring to the Gulf Coast city most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “Because when the people left New Orleans, they relocated, they settled elsewhere and they’re not coming back.”
Foreman added that of the 10 Atlantic states with horse racing, only Massachusetts – where he said “racing is on its deathbed” – Maryland and Virginia did not have slot machines at their racetracks.
“Maryland is missing a huge opportunity,” Mike Pons, horse breeder and president of Maryland Million told the committee. The industry representatives also said that slot machines would attract larger, younger crowds to the racetracks, which currently attract and older clientele, and that the tracks were the most “logical” location if the state was going to import gambling machines.
Despite the dire predictions, slots legislation faces a difficult future in this year’s General Assembly. Though the Senate President, Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. D-Calvert and Prince George’s, wants to push a slots bill through this year, his counterpart, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, remains opposed.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has been ambiguous about the issue. While he says he supports slots, he also contends that there are more important issues before the legislature this year. He did not make a slots bill part of his administration’s legislative package.
Moreover, some legislators had qualms about how exactly slots would help revitalize the racing, which has seen declining attendance.
“I don’t see how you tie the two together,” Sen. George W. Della, Jr., D-Baltimore, told the horsemen. “If you’re sitting there saying that the track should be given money to promote racing and to make capital improvements, that would be a valid argument. But to sit there and say that the only way we’re going to be able to make it is with slot machines – it’s not going to happen.”
Foreman said the racing industry has seen a cut back in stakes and racing days from 180 to 120 days per year. He predicted that the racing landscape in 2008 would change drastically, and that to maintain the current level of purses, the tracks would either have to cut racing days even more or receive state aid. “We’re simply treading water,” Raffetto said, adding that without the additional revenue that slot machines would generate for the tracks, they were in “survival mode.”