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Slots backers: Horse racing in crisis

March 17, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday heard a bill proposed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich and 10 other bills dealing with slot machine gambling.

Many of the arguments used in previous years - more money for school construction and education, creation of jobs, establishment of a stable revenue source, stemming the loss of revenue to other states - came up again, but with an added emphasis on what officials said was a decline of horse breeding and horse racing in the state.

The legalization of slot machine gambling in neighboring states, notably West Virginia and Delaware, has put Maryland's horse industry in a crisis posture, Sec. James D. Fielder of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said. As racing days at the state's tracks have decreased, racing days at Charles Town Races & Slots in Charles Town, W.Va., have risen from 182 to 245. A major component, Fielder said, was the expansion of slot machine gambling at horse tracks.

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The governor's bill would permit slot machine gambling in six locations - three existing racetracks, a proposed racetrack in Allegany County and two yet-to-be-determined locations along Interstate 95.

It would also use a portion of slots revenue to increase purses at horse tracks, making Maryland races more competitive.

While the number of Marylanders crossing the Potomac to gamble in Charles Town has been a frequent target of Ehrlich's slots crusade, residents on the other end of the state not only gamble in Delaware, but find it more lucrative to raise - and race - horses there.

Breeder Jeremy Rockwell said his family had raised and raced horses in both Maryland and Delaware. Before Delaware approved slots, he said, the largest purses available there ranged from $1,000 to $1,500.

"When they got slots, that changed dramatically," he said, with minimum purses rising to $6,000.

Delaware tracks favor horses that are "Delaware owned, Delaware bred," Rockwell said, with few races open to out-of-state breeders. "Maryland horses can't compete," he said. "It's worth much more to breed a horse in Delaware than it is in Maryland.

Opponents of slots argued that expanding gambling would negatively affect the communities where the slots parlors would operate.

Brian Dale, representing the southwest Baltimore neighborhood of "Pigtown," said his community had been target for a "gigantic slots facility and racetrack.

"The residents and business owners do not want gambling in the community," he said, citing the potential for gambling addiction and other ills.

The two Washington County delegates who serve on the Ways and Means Committee, Robert A. McKee and LeRoy Myers, believe the slots bills are dead on arrival.

Myers, who opposes slots, predicted none of the bills would survive the committee. McKee, who favors slots, summed up the hearing as "nothing new; no chance; it's an election year."

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