Maryland Tracks May Add 'Next Generation' of Betting Machines

Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, is considering seeking approval for a plan that would let handicappers bet on live racing from around the country using machines that have a lot of the appeal of slot machines.

Timothy Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, minority owner of the two tracks, described the machines Monday as "a faster, glitzier" version of self-service machines already in use at many tracks

"They are not slot machines. They are not surrogates for slots. They don't do the same things as slots, where people are betting against the house," Capps told the Associated Press.

He described them as "the next generation" of self-service terminals where gamblers wager on live racing either at the Maryland tracks or races simulcast from other tracks around the country.

The Baltimore Sun reported Monday that MEC said it would roll out its video racing machines this year if they are approved by the Maryland Racing Commission.

The newspaper quoted Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman, as saying, "It looks like a slot machine. It acts like a slot machine. But it's pari-mutuel racing."

"It's got the quick action; every few minutes you can bet a race," Stronach said.

Capps said the machines contemplated by Magna are distinct from video terminals at Oaklawn racetrack in Hot Springs, Ark., which allow gamblers to wager on races from the past.

Bettors are given information about the records of the horses, jockeys and trainers, but not the names, so fans will not know who won the races.

A player can bet as little as a nickel and as much as $5 on three horses. A replay of the race appears on one side of a split screen. The other side has a spinning reel where slots-style icons, such as horseshoes, line up to indicate when a player wins a bet.

A player who picks the horses in the right order wins whatever money is available in the betting pool. There also are jackpots for players who pick the winners of four consecutive races.

The Oaklawn machines allow the same type of frequent play as slot machines because bettors can, and usually do, opt to watch only the last few seconds of races, Lou Cella, Oaklawn's vice president, said.

He told the Sun that the machines are attracting new players and have been "an absolute savior to our racing program."

Bruce Spitzler, legal counsel to the Maryland Racing Commission, said he would have to research the issue to determine if the machines contemplated by Magna would be permitted under current state law.

Some gambling opponents fear that the new machines are a way to install slot machines at Maryland tracks without approval of the General Assembly, which rejected Gov. Robert Ehrlich's slot machine bill earlier this month.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, a leading opponent of the governor's bill, said Monday he did not think the Magna plan "is anything to get exercised about."

Capps said the current self-service machines are touch-screen devices similar to bank ATMs. He said he did not know what Magna's plans are, or when a request might be filed with the racing commission.

But Capps said the trend in the industry is to develop machines that display live feeds of races.

Paul Micucci, vice president of Magna, did not return a message left on his telephone voice mail seeking comment about the company's plans for new machines in Maryland.