Are slot machines the only way to help the horse racing business in Maryland and other states? I’m interested in hearing what equestrian bloggers think about this hotly debated topic as I work through my own thoughts.
As most of you know, the Maryland state referendum on slot machines passed easily allowing the introduction of 15,000 slot machines at five locations throughout the state. According to Maryland’s racing commission, the horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounts for over 9,000 jobs and has a $600-million economic impact on the state. But to those of us who love horses and feel a sentimental attachment to the great history of thoroughbred breeding and racing — at least 250 years in Maryland — keeping the sport alive and healthy means much more. It’s a matter of the heart.
Conventional thinking is that the Maryland horse racing and breeding industry would continue to suffer losses to adjacent states (West Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania) where slots have already been introduced. Many in the industry have worried that Maryland’s Pimlico Racetrack might lose the Preakness, the second jewel in the Triple Crown after nearly 140 years of horseracing history in Maryland without the infusion of cash and interest that slot machines would produce at the track.
For the voting public, the slot machine referendum represents a way to raise revenue for a cash-strapped education system without raising taxes — a minimum of 48.5% of the total slot machine profits will go to education funding — and as state budgets everywhere are suffering, having a steady flow of cash for education is no small thing, especially with estimates as high as $600 million in new revenues.
The advantage for horse racing and breeding is in the portion of slot machine revenue that will be funneled into racetrack purses and breeding awards. For Maryland, this will mean a major shot in the arm—by most estimates, $100 million a year distributed among thoroughbred and standardbred interests, as well as racetrack improvements.
I’m all for increasing purses so horse owners will be more interested in entering their better horses and therefore keep the quality of the sport high. But I’m not sure that slots actually bring more people to the track and bring more interest to racing. It is likely to change the land use patterns at the track as the pressure to develop increases. At Charles Town in West Virginia (as well as other locations), the track is cutting back on horse stables on site partly due to this pressure to develop, turning traditional racetracks into “racinos” with increasing amounts of real estate turning over to casinos and hotels—not at all the traditional horse racing experience.
When I have been to the track it has been to watch the horses and to bet a little to make it more interesting—but it’s the allure of the horses that draws me in: an afternoon enjoying and studying the racing forms to understand the subtle differences among the horses; taking a small risk to increase the excitement of the actual race. When horse racing stood alongside boxing and baseball as the only major spectator sports, the racetrack was crowded and finding revenue was not an issue. Today with competition from dozens of other spectator sports we need to find creative ways to bring people back to the sport, especially young audiences.
One commentator I read suggested developing an Internet campaign that speaks the language of younger audiences to create the excitement and buzz that gets the attention of a new generation of potential racing fans. In the end, this is what is needed: a fan base that supports the sport. A cash injection is important but what we really need is to convey the drama, the beauty, and the excitement of the sport of horse racing and introduce a new generation to an afternoon at the track. The Triple Crown never fails to draw huge crowds. That enthusiasm should spread to the rest of the year and then racing enthusiasts would provide the support the industry needs.
We need creativity and innovation. What are your ideas? What do you think about slots and racetracks? Please comment and let’s talk about it.