Maryland Racing Faces Uncertain Future

As the Maryland General Assembly lurched into the final week of its 2004 law-making session, the future of slot machines in the state remained in the unpredictable grip of politics and, seemingly, outside the control of anyone in the horse industry.

Who could have imagined this scenario in November 2002 when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, was elected governor after campaigning on a platform that prominently included slots at racetracks. Since then, the issue has become mired in bitter political battles, and the goal of slots at tracks to help racing has apparently been nearly forgotten.

Time is running out on the legislative session scheduled to end April 12. Time may be running out on Maryland racing, too. People involved in racing in the state have waited years for slots--as purses and breeders' funds lagged further behind those in nearby states, as tracks and backstretches in Maryland fell into even greater disrepair, and as morale plummeted to desperately low levels. On March 31, Pimlico opened its spring meet--the state's signature meet that includes the Preakness--and hardly anyone noticed. The day before, several hundred horsemen and track workers rode buses provided by track owners to a boisterous slots rally in Annapolis.

"It's all anybody's thinking about right now," said Linda Albert, a Maryland trainer who has already lost horses because their owners moved them to states where purses are subsidized by slot machines. "The owners live in Maryland, and they want to race here. But they see what's happening to purses at Charles Town and Delaware Park. I guess without slots Maryland racing would keep muddling along, but it's going to be hard for many of us to stay if we keep racing for less and less money."

Last month, the Maryland Senate passed a bill calling for 15,500 slot machines at three tracks and three non-track locations. The House of Delegates, which killed slots legislation last year, has threatened to kill it again unless Ehrlich agrees to massive tax increases to meet a projected $1 billion budget shortfall by next summer. The governor has said repeatedly that he will not.

Rhetoric has heated to a boil between Ehrlich and his primary Democratic rival, Michael E. Busch, the powerful speaker of the House. Busch has publicly derided horse racing, especially track owners. He does not favor slots, and he says if they must come, then the state should build the casinos, control the machines, and pocket the majority of the profits.

The focus has become funding education, not saving racing. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat in strong favor of slots, ordered the Senate to stop all work on the budget, threatening to send the session into overtime, until the House acts on slots legislation. Leading lawmakers were meeting daily behind closed doors trying to find common ground and craft compromise legislation.

Racing leaders remained "guardedly optimistic"--several used the identical words--about slots being authorized during this legislative session. At the same time, they acknowledged being on the outside looking in, a position unimaginable a year and a half ago when a pro-slots governor took the oath of office.