As one last-gasp effort to legalize slot machines in Maryland this year failed because of political warfare, horsemen and breeders in the state have begun what many said was inevitable as long as slots remained forbidden: the exodus of horses, horsemen, and horse farms.
Tony Dutrow, one of the few Maryland trainers with horses good enough to win stakes in New York, has moved into a house he bought near Philadelphia Park. He left his native state and took his wife, their three children, and his 50 high-quality horses with him.
"I'm not blaming the racetrack, and I'm not blaming the horse industry," Dutrow said. "I am absolutely blaming the politicians in Maryland. They have turned their backs on the people of Maryland and the horse industry of Maryland."
John Scanlan, who trained some of the best bred horses in Maryland, including multiple grade I winner Toccet, has relocated his 25 horses to Philly Park. John Salzman, who trained the popular Xtra Heat, winner of more stakes than any filly or mare in North America, is selling his Maryland farm and considering moving out of state.
Scott Lake, who led the nation's trainers in wins three of the last four years, cut his Maryland operation from 50 horses last year to 20 this year. He said he'll likely move out altogether when slots proceeds begin enriching Pennsylvania purses.
Dale Capuano, the leading trainer in Maryland six of the past seven years, has requested 44 stalls at Philly Park. If he gets them, he said, then he'll take his best 44 horses. The 40 or so he'd leave in Maryland would be his "cheaper" ones, as he put it.
"No question we'll be the minor league of the Mid-Atlantic," Capuano said.
Three major horse farms near Chesapeake City in northeastern Maryland are for sale. Ron Cullis, owner of Plane Tree, said Maryland's troubled horse industry was a factor in his selling the 112-acre farm. Owners of the other two farms, Muirfield East and Sycamore Hall, said they are selling for personal reasons.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., a Republican elected in 2002, advocated slot machines at racetracks. However, his initiatives in the 2003 and 2004 legislative sessions passed the state Senate but died in the House of Delegates, mainly because of the opposition of House Speaker Michael Busch.
After Pennsylvania passed its slots bill, Maryland's political leaders decided one last time to try to reach agreement on a slots referendum to place on the November ballot. For one day, Sept. 7, it looked as if an agreement might be near. The next day, however, negotiations collapsed amid sharp allegations from Ehrlich and Busch.
The effect on Maryland's horse industry could be dire. Tom Bowman, past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, predicted the number of Thoroughbred foals born in Maryland next year will decrease by one third to one half.
"The wolf is not at the door; he's in the house," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "You're beginning to see an erosion of our horses and our horsemen. It's not like the circus, where you take the tent down and everybody leaves. It's like a bucket with a hole in it. Drip, drip, drip, drip. And finally the bucket's empty."