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Lost in battle over slots: Maryland's horse industry

April 02, 2004

With less than three weeks before the close of the Maryland General Assembly's 2004 session, the question of whether slot machines will be legalized is still up in the air.

By now, the arguments are well-known, but one we haven't heard much talk about this year is the proposal's effect on horse racing in the state. Before lawmakers write off horse racing, they should look again at the December 2002 state study of this industry.

The Wilmington News Journal reported that Maryland did its study in part because the last "national equine impact study" was done back in 1996 by the American Horse Council.

Maryland's own inventory counted 28,000 Thoroughbreds, the breed that dominates Maryland racing, and 5,800 Standardbreds, used for harness racing. In addition, there were 42,000 horses, donkeys, mules and ponies with no ties to horse racing.

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The value of all those horses was pegged at $680 million, while all the assets related to keeping them - land, equipment and supplies - was valued at $5.2 billion. About 38,000 people were involved in horse-related businesses.

There was no reliable measure then or since as to the effect of horse racing on agriculture. Hay, straw and feed are all supplied, but who provides how much was not covered by the study.

According to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, the number of horse farms and related businesses has grown in that state since the passage of a 1994 bill that put aside part of the proceeds from track-based slot machines to increase racing purses.

So what does all this have to do with Maryland's slots bill? A lot. If horse racing dies in Maryland, not only will jobs be lost, but land now devoted to breeding farms and crops is likely to become new housing developments.

More housing development in rural areas equals more congestion and more demand for state help with items like schools, roads and sewage treatment. There would also be an adverse effect on the quality of life in rural areas.

Last year the race track owners cried poormouth and sought a share of slot proceeds that we deemed too high. But if the slots bill is passed, would it really make sense to give the tracks - and the horse industry - nothing at all?

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