At Horse Farm, Maryland Governor Floats Slots Plan

by John Hay Rabb

If Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley gets his way with the notoriously restive Maryland legislature this fall, the state’s horseracing fans may at long last find slot machines installed at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

On Sept. 25 at the Maryland Stallion Station, surrounded by high-ranking state officials and influential Thoroughbred breeders, the governor emphasized the history and economic significance of the state’s Thoroughbred industry.

“Horse racing in Maryland is some 250 years old, and is an integral part of the state’s agricultural tradition,” O’Malley said. “It is also a nearly $600-million industry that employs about 18,000 people and preserves over 600,000 acres of open space across our state.”

In mid-August, O’Malley released a state-commissioned study that seemed to confirm the widely-held impression that Marylanders are spending millions of dollars in Delaware and West Virginia, where slot machines are legal. The report said Marylanders deposit almost $400 million annually in the neighboring states’ slot machines. That money translates into about $150 million for education and other public projects in Delaware and West Virginia.

O’Malley said his slots proposal would generate about $550 million to be spent on public schools, community colleges, and four-year universities. The governor said slots proceeds would be used to preserve horse-related agriculture and keep Maryland’s Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry competitive with those in other states.

The governor’s slot-machine package will have to pass muster with the Maryland legislature. Democratic Speaker of the House of Delegates Michael E. Busch has been a formidable opponent of slots for several years; he was instrumental in helping defeat pro-slots legislation advanced by former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich on four occasions.

O’Malley is expected to call the legislature back into session later this fall to vote on a budget deficit-elimination package that includes slots. Details of the slots proposal aren’t yet available.

Along with Laurel and Pimlico, two Thoroughbred tracks operated by the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland has two harness tracks—Ocean Downs and Rosecroft Raceway—and the Maryland State Fair, which offers a short summer Thoroughbred meet at Timonium. Plans have been in the works for a dual-breed facility in the western part of the state near Cumberland.

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