11.19.08

Maryland State Referendum on Slot Machines: What do you think?

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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.

Slot Machine

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.

race-horse-image

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.

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3 responses to “Maryland State Referendum on Slot Machines: What do you think?”

  1. I am a regular horseplayer at Charles Town, and the contribution of the slots to the horsemen and horseplayers cannot be understated. The purses are increasing each month at Charles Town, and as the purses increase, attendance is (slowly) rising.

    I don’t remember the exact timing, but I believe it was around August when management realized it still had $4 million to give out before the end of the year — money that came almost exclusively from the slot operations. So the purses for the West Virginia Breeders Cup racing day were increased, and the track is now fairly regularly running $50k-$100k purses on the feature races on a Saturday night.

    Charles Town has a pretty bad track layout – 6 furlongs makes for some really sharp turns and some very wonky starting gate positions for longer races. But if you ignore that fact, the money Charles Town is getting from the slots has allowed management to put lots of love into ensuring the racing surface is a good as it can be. I’m not an expert on racing dirt, so I can’t speak to the particulars, but they appear to be constantly working at improving the racing surface.

    Finally, as I mentioned earlier, attendance is up. Charles Town is pretty roomy for a no-frills track. The 2nd floor especially has seating for thousands of people. But on the morning of the Breeders Cup (the races for the guys on Saturday; I wasn’t there for Zenyatta and the mares racing on Friday), the seating areas were full by 10:30am. Saturday was a 7pm post time for Charles Town, so from about 9am through midnight, the track was packed to the rafters with horseplayers. (At 4pm, when the Breeders Cup Classic went off, it was as exciting a 2:30 minutes as I’ve experienced at Charles Town. Curlin had so many fans, but most of us had been playing Raven’s Pass; the cheering and screaming was fabulous!)

    So from one Charles Town horseplayer’s perspective, the results of a successful slots operation can only be counted as good thing for the horsemen and horseplayers. Our experiences are being enriched (literally and figuratively) by the casino cash.

  2. Thanks for your response to my comments on the Referendum on Slot Machines. It is encouraging to hear some positive results from slots.

    Living in the DC/Maryland area I have heard arguments both for and against slots for years now but assume much of it has been more political fighting than real discourse on the state of horse racing.

    I am aware of the problems with the track layout at Charles Town. In fact, I met with management for the track several years ago to discuss modifications to the site. I felt the problem was, at least at the time, resolvable. I thought the distance from the gate to the first turn was too short. At the time they were planning an expansion to the casino and hotel accommodations but had not proceeded. Now that it is built, I think they missed a golden opportunity to improve the track while making improvements to the facilities.

    Your description of the Breeder’s Cup day at the track was exciting and encouraging. I would like to have been there. I am also hopeful that the tracks in Maryland see similar benefits. My concern is that the track management recognizes its opportunity and will do what they can to improve the horsing racing experience for all those interested in horses and the thrill of racing, not just the gambling. I think it’s a great sport that has been sadly overlooked for too long.

  3. tvnewsbadge says:

    We don’t have them in Virginia, but I’m not so sure slots have much of a negative impact insofar as land use goes, at least at our track at Colonial Downs in New Kent County.

    It’s basicaly in the middle of nowhere with plenty of open space for all kinds of development, and at this point it’s questionable if the track is going to even survive.

    tVnb

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