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Pull a lever, save open space: A reason to vote for slots

November 02, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

To the names of folks who have had a significant economic development impact on West Virginia - Byrd, Caperton, Moore, Rockefeller - add this one: Sam Huff.

More than two decades ago, acting on an idea he cooked up with the savvy horsewoman Carol Holden, the great NFL linebacker approached ESPN with $75,000 and an offbeat request: Broadcast the newly minted West Virginia Breeders Classic horse race from Charles Town.

Charles Town? Home of nags, cripples and washouts, where the winner was said to be selected based on the amount of cash changing hands in brown envelopes and trick, finish-line camera angles?

Yet West Virginia had just passed, grudgingly, legislation that would reward home-bred and sired horses with juicer purses - juicy enough that experienced horsemen and women began to look for any redeeming athletic value in otherwise angular animals that had Mountain State ancestors in the family tree.

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West Virginia was on the horse racing map, barely, thanks to Huff, who pursued a quality equine product as doggedly as he had pursued any quarterback.

Ten years later, Penn National came to town with the legalization of slots. Charles Town Races and Slots admittedly puts races first in name only - the money is in their 5,000 gaming machines. But a funny thing happened on the way to the casino. Horse racing has come along for the ride.

In its inaugural year, purses for the five West Virginia Breeders Classic races totaled $200,000. This year, the purse for the crown jewel race alone was a half-million.

West Virginia breeding is now serious business, and the state is being mentioned in more and more national horse-related headlines.

The lesson has not been lost on the Maryland Farm Bureau, which is supporting legalization of slots in the upcoming referendum.

"Increased activity and larger purses at Maryland's racetracks will mean more business and more income for those directly involved with the equine industry," Farm Bureau president Mike Phipps told The (Baltimore) Sun. "But it will also mean a larger income for local family farmers who sell hay and straw at premium prices for horses."

But there's another angle. Drive the back roads in suburban counties and you'll see that most of the wide, green, open spaces have a few horses planted in the middle of them. In many ways, the sprawling horse farms have been the last line of defense against housing, development and sprawl. These thousands of acres clean the air instead of polluting it. They soak up the rain instead of allowing it to wash off the pavement into the storm sewer.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose slots, and I don't have any particular argument with any of them. I don't like giving lawmakers who have spent themselves into a hole an easy out, nor am I particularly fond of the idea of soaking more money out of what is traditionally a lower-income demographic.

But gambling will bring in revenue that would otherwise have to be raised through other taxes, and while I'm not under any illusion that education will receive the full effect of the promised windfall, it will likely have some positive financial effect.

So this is not an argument to change the minds of slot opponents; rather, this is for people such as myself who want a reason to vote for slots and not feel entirely guilty about it.

Think of slots as an environmental issue.

If West Virginia is any guide, a rising gambling tide raises all colts, and given the disturbing disappearance of agricultural land, this can only be a good thing.

A healthy horse industry helps maintain a healthy state. The USDA says that 10 percent of Maryland's lands - 685,000 acres on 20,200 horse farms - is owned by horse people. Of the 87,000 horses in Maryland, 40 percent are dependent on the racing industry.

Maryland taxpayers spend a lot of money to protect open space, but horse owners do it for free. Not only that, they pump a lot of their own dollars into the state economy. Believe me, I know - as a horse owner, sometimes I feel as if all I do is pump.

If horse racing declines, if recreational horse ownership (often inspired by competitive horse events) declines, so will the number of acres that we now see as broad, green pastures and hay fields. It would contribute to the further surrender of agriculture to the builders and pavers.

Yes, it's a reach to say that slots will save agriculture. But in a curious, roundabout way, there is no doubt that slots - with their sprawling casinos, jammed parking lots, hideous flashing lights and infernal racket - will in their way help protect the peaceful, rural life that many of us prefer to riotous, urban clamor. If you doubt it, just ask Sam Huff.

Tim Rowland is

a Herald-Mail columnist.

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