Maryland Racetracks Up Pressure for Slots

By Associated Press

Momentum is building in Maryland to explore a formerly taboo idea: locating lucrative slot machines at sites other than racetracks.

Maryland legislators considering the legalization of slot machines will tour Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park on Tuesday. Racetrack owners contend slot machines are a matter of economic survival for their industry.

To maintain their monopoly on private-sector gambling, racing interests are working to persuade legislators not only to legalize slots, but also to restrict them to racetracks.

Two independent studies released this summer concluded that slots situated at places other than tracks could generate more money for the state treasury.

"I can't see any justification why (slots) should be an entitlement to racetracks only," said House Speaker Michael Busch, a key figure in this year's slots debate.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, has talked about building state-owned slots emporiums near easily accessible highways and on the state's borders. Busch has mentioned the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium and the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit as venues that could be considered for slots ventures.

Other political figures are pushing for a full-scale casino at National Harbor, just across the Potomac River from Washington. And there's talk about possible casino or slot ventures at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the Rocky Gap resort in Allegany County, or in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

Maryland racing executives say their worst nightmare would be if the state allows slots at other sites, but not racetracks.

"If they come into the state ... and we don't get them, that is going to be a fatal blow to the racetracks here," said Timothy Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks. "If they expand gambling at other locations and don't include the racetracks, there's no way to be competitive moving forward."

Lonny Powell, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, a trade group of racing states, agreed.

"The worst-case scenario for Maryland racing would be land-based casinos with no slots at the tracks," Powell said. "It's a no-brainer. The industry will die a very quick death."

Jeffrey Hooke, an investment analyst from Silver Spring who has studied the slots issue for a Maryland tax policy group, said he doesn't see slots at other sites delivering killing Maryland horse racing. He said there's little overlap among people who bet on horses and those who bet on slots.

"My preliminary research suggests that racetracks can coexist with casinos," Hooke said. "That's been proven in other states, such as Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky."

Casino opponents say adding slots would provide an unjustified subsidy to a sport that has squandered its fan base and would fundamentally change the character of racetracks.

Earl Grinols, an economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies gambling issues, said allowing slots would simply turn racetracks into casinos, without reviving the sport.

"What you are going to get is casinos with a little bit of vestigial racing on the side," Grinols said.

Legislation supported by Gov. Robert Ehrlich that passed the state Senate but faltered in the House this year would have been a windfall for the racing industry. It would have restricted slots to Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County and a track proposed for Western Maryland.