Maryland Officials: Help Needed to Protect Industry

Maryland racing officials and politicians really didn't make any excuses during the May 13 Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico Race Course. Instead, they called on the racing industry to do everything it can to facilitate a turn of fortunes for horse racing in the state.

Maryland Gov. Robert Erhlich Jr., upon his arrival in the Pimlico clubhouse two days before the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), told the media: "It's not just about slots." In follow-up comments, Ehrlich, who supported racetrack gaming before he was elected, said the sport must better market its product, broaden its appeal, and improve its infrastructure.

"Racing is part of our glorious past, part of our glorious present, and needs to be part of our glorious future," Ehrlich said. "As we stand here and anticipate the Super Bowl of horse racing in Maryland, we have issues to confront...Our industry is at a crossroads in our view. My challenge to you is to be as interested in this industry next week as we have been for the last two weeks."

Ehrlich did touch on efforts to win support for slot machines, but he said there must be changes in the public dialogue and values. The issue has become mired in politics, and racing hasn't been portrayed in a favorable light.

"We are fighting a thought process," he said of all the negativity surrounding the issue of expanded gambling. "This is a serious call to arms to save this save this way of life."

Ehrlich noted the impact competition in neighboring states with gaming has had on Maryland, and indicated the issue of racetrack gaming could be addressed this year during a special session, or perhaps early next year. "Sometimes I like to go to Delaware and visit my citizens and my money," he said with a touch of sarcasm.

Delaware Park and two harness tracks -- Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway -- have slot machines. All the track are within easy driving distance of major Maryland cities.

Ehrlich also said horse farms are an important part of the Maryland landscape and should remain so. He said there are about 250,000 acres worth of horse farms, which "looks a lot better than a housing tract in the outer suburbs."

Jim McAlpine, president of Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Laurel Park and Pimlico, said horse racing must continue its storied history in Maryland, and he called on Alibi Breakfast attendees to do their part. "If you love horse racing and horse racing in Maryland, get engaged," McAlpine said. "Get involved in the issues."

Industry participants, including the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and Maryland Horse Breeders Association are working on ways to compensate for financial shortfalls in the meantime. A Maryland THA official said recently the purse account could have a shortfall of $2 million to $3 million by the end of 2004.