By Sean Clancy
It's come to this. The Maryland racing industry starts and ends at the same place, the same date, the same issue – the voters' booth come November. The slots referendum – the denouement – will decide once and for all whether Maryland will attain slots to help staunch the losses of horses, horsemen and handle to neighboring states.
The once storied tradition of Maryland racing has come to this. The slots uncertainty has replaced all that was Maryland racing – the spectacle of the Preakness, the buzz of the Maryland Million, the hype of the renovated dirt and turf courses at Laurel Park, the history of Sagamore and Windfields Farm and the legacies of Northern Dancer and Native Dancer. Today, ask anybody about Maryland racing and it goes no further than the slots referendum in November.
Destined to put 15,000 slot machines in five sites across five counties, the bill could generate up to $700 million in state tax revenue and pump nearly $100 million into the racing industry. Presently, the annual purse structure at Pimlico and Laurel taps out around $33 million. The numbers are complicated – a percentage goes to Standardbreds, another part goes to the Maryland breeders, some goes to facility improvements – but any direction it's doled, the passage of the slots bill remains paramount to Maryland racing.
If there's a one-word answer to why Maryland remains in the throes of the slots woes, it's politics. The slots bill has been locked in dispute in Annapolis for over a decade. First there was Governor Paris Glendening's "No Slots" manifesto. Then Governor Bob Ehrlich's tepid endorsement of the slots bill was basically declared a non-starter. Gridlock on the Beltway has had more wiggle room. Finally, Governor Martin O'Malley decided, it's up to the voters. Yes or no. What's it going to be, yes or no?
That's when the 12-year odyssey to land slots in the state will come to a head. Vote yes, and Maryland racing receives a life rope. Vote no, and it slips further into oblivion behind states with slots-induced purses. Worst of all, the waiting game will finally be up and owners, trainers, breeders who have been hanging on will wait no longer. Pack your bags, this bus is leaving.
"I'm in the same spot as a lot of people are, hoping that come November something good happens for us," said trainer Mike Trombetta, who led all trainers last year in percentage at the major Maryland meets of Pimlico and Laurel. "We can start aiming in the right direction again. My worst fear is what would happen if November doesn't go well."
Richard Hoffberger, the president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, knows what will happen. He's represented horsemen throughout this maze of inefficiency.
"If it doesn't pass now, the people in Delaware Park, Philadelphia Park, Charles Town, they're going to break out the champagne," Hoffberger said. "We'd still have some semblance of a race meet but you've got no horses around here, I mean it's bad here. The racehorse business in Maryland sucks."
There was a time when Maryland's product towered above Delaware, Charles Town or anything offered in Pennsylvania. Those days are over.
At Laurel Park on a recent Thursday, the first race, a $25,000 claimer for 3-year-old fillies running for a $24,000 purse attracted three horses. The second for $10,000 claimers collected five runners. It didn't get much better through the rest of the card – 59 horses competed in nine races. It's not a titillating product. Turf racing on Laurel's state-of-the-art turf course will jump start the product in the spring and the Preakness build-up will invigorate the scene at least for a week in May. But there are fundamental flaws which damage the vibrancy of racing. Pimlico, the second oldest track in the country, remains decrepit and Laurel Park's facility is only marginally better. Laurel closes for much of the summer when the Colonial Downs meet in Virginia begins, leaving the turf course dormant for some of the most viable days of the year. The Maryland Jockey Club operates Bowie as a training center, adding to the accounts payable side of the ledger.
But still it's Maryland – the best racing state in the Mid-Atlantic area. They don't run the Preakness in Pennsylvania. The Washington D.C. International wasn't run in West Virginia. It's not the New Jersey Million, it's the Maryland Million. Bernie Bond didn't call Delaware home.
But here it lies in limbo – like a transplant patient, waiting for the call. The slots bill has tantalized horsemen in Maryland for over a decade. The jackpot has always been a house bill or a vote or a referendum away. Like teasing a Labrador Retriever with a tennis ball. Pumping up your racing product with slot money doesn't necessarily offer a palatable solution, but a necessary one when neighboring states Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia employ slots to raise money for their racing product. They have forced the issue. Bigger purses across state lines create an exodus for horsemen and horses. It hasn't been a mad dash but more of a Chinese water torture as horsemen have moved in search of the almighty dollar. And that's a credit to Maryland horsemen, most have hung in there like they're defending the Alamo.
High-profile trainers such as Graham Motion, Tony Dutrow and Tim Ritchey have already taken that bus route off the Maryland racing circuit. Trainers who used to stick around Laurel Park for the winter now venture to other circuits like Oaklawn Park or Tampa Bay Downs. It's one thing to go to Gulfstream Park, but now they flee for tracks that used to operate well below Laurel's par.
"Aww, it's horrible," Trombetta said when asked what it was like to watch his state falter. "We went through this exercise every year for I don't know how many years now, and the best the legislators could come up with is to basically tell the voters, ‘Ah heck, you guys decide on this.' It's definitely frustrating."
Maryland's purse structure has slipped behind neighboring states. The slots-induced purses in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania have sapped Maryland's pool of horses. In a state that was renowned for its horsemen – the year-round lifers who trained a string, utilized a farm and bled Maryland are waning. Some stick around because they like the lifestyle, they own that farm and they keep thinking "one of these days..." Horsemen like Dickie Small, Larry Murray, Ann Merryman, Jimmy Murphy; they represent the old-school Maryland mystique. Then there are prolific number runners like Dale Capuano, Scott Lake, Ben Feliciano Jr. and Trombetta who win consistently wherever they go but stay despite the purses. How long any of them will last is the question and threat. If the bill in November fails, start crossing off the calendar blocks.
Hoffberger has lived the slots debate, from the time he and former Maryland Jockey Club president Joe DeFrancis stood up in front of the media at Pimlico Racecourse and tried to choreograph the impact slots could have on racing. That was three governors, one DeFrancis and countless horses and horsemen ago. Still no slots.
"The referendum is the big story," Hoffberger said. "If it passes, we should be in halfway decent shape. If it doesn't pass...we're a small-time market."
But will it pass?
Right now the proponents of slots are on the lead while the opponents lag about 20 points behind. But read the form.
"The anti-slot people are come-from-behind runners, and you've got to be at least 20 points ahead, because they'll come get you at the end," Hoffberger said. "We're about 20 points ahead now. What's that mean? It's almost a photo."
Most horsemen who were originally against slots have long since hugged the monster. Have a better plan to balance Maryland's budget shortfall? Another way to inject some life into to Maryland's racing and breeding industry? Think the lesser of all evils.
"We're competing with the state – the state's running a lottery system. We're competing with casinos in New Jersey that are funding purses to the tune of $25 million a year. We're competing with Delaware Park, with Pennsylvania, with West Virginia," Hoffberger said. "Is it the answer? No. But if you want to run a track meet, having a good pair of shoes is not the only answer, but if you don't get dressed up, you don't have a chance."
Breeders in the state continue to dress up, surviving on tradition and striving for change. Northview Stallion Station, near Northeast, continues to churn out winners with a stallion brigade led by Not For Love and Two Punch. The Pons family's Country Life Farm survives, despite being nearly engulfed in urban sprawl, ducking and jiving in search of the next Malibu Moon who will reach across state lines. Don Litz has led a small group of investors in the development of Maryland Stallion Station which houses eight regional stallions. Allen and Audrey Murray guide their family-oriented operation, Murmur Farm; the couple hit the jackpot buying and quickly selling Our Emblem, in middle of the firestorm created by War Emblem's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Dr. Tom Bowman of Northview sees a much bigger picture than just slots at racetracks.
"The whole thing is highly disappointing, but not surprising," Bowman said. "It runs much deeper than just the demise of the racetracks, it symbolizes a radical change in our state and the philosophy on our state's well being. We're no longer a state that sees agriculture as important. Most of the states that approved slots recognized the value of keeping their state an agricultural state and saw horse racing as a way to protect rural land and agriculture."
There's the rub, it's hard to convince politicians and citizens that open spaces actually keep taxes lower and slows the expense account. The more houses that grow in the fields, the more tax money needed to supply police, roads, education and everything required to keep a society moving.
"Several of my children work with me and the future isn't too bright for them in this state," said Bowman, who served as the president of the Maryland Horse Breeders. "With a magic wand, they can affect racing. Look at Penn National, they're up and running again and you're seeing some big-name trainers run there. But when you try to sell the slots legislation in this state, the open spaces, the agriculture, the horse racing, it means nothing to the politicians and their constituents. They can't comprehend how it's going to affect them."
All the Maryland breeders operate under the encroaching shadow of neighboring states' breeders incentive programs. Breeding
a Maryland-bred doesn't hold the same appeal as it once did. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, even a Delaware-certified program has leached some of Maryland's prominence.
Northview made the first tangible step to develop in other states, breaking ground on a division in Pennsylvania. Right now, yes, they're still tried-and-true Maryland but it's not unfathomable to think of them as one day being pure Pennsylvania. "Northview is a little bit of an enigma because we have a couple of stallions that reach across state lines," Bowman said. "For two years we set a record of mares bred in Maryland but we noticed where the mares were coming from and where they were going. You have to be where the business is, we moved 30 miles up the road and the economic picture is grossly different. I don't like it but you can't be an ostrich."
Trombetta makes up another high-profile trainer moving into Fair Hill Training Center, one of the few thriving Thoroughbred entities in the state. The sprawling spread in the northeast corner of the state struggled to hold its own for years. Now it's booming. Prominent owner Earle Mack recently purchased two barns. Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm purchased a barn site, flattened the existing barn and will place Larry Jones (of Hard Spun fame) there this spring. Tickets to Fair Hill Steeplechase Meeting are sold out.
Trombetta owns a small farm in Maryland, will train at a training center in Maryland, and will have horses at Laurel in Maryland. That's how committed he is to the state, but he also had horses at Gulfstream this winter, will have horses stabled at Delaware and will race his nearly 100 horses all over the East Coast.
"For me Maryland is home. It's where I grew up, where I came around the racetrack. It's got a long-standing history
and tradition. The Preakness is very nice and all, but it's more than just the Preakness," Trombetta said. "It's everybody in the industry in Maryland. But it's struggling. First the breeders, now the racehorses stables are the next ones to go. This thing is very much changing and evolving, and you've kind of got to roll with the punches as you go."
Trombetta has accepted that sometimes you have to dance with the devil.
"I'm not a big fan of the slots, but unfortunately it's the money that keeps everything rolling," Trombetta said. "When your competitors have that asset and you don't, you don't stand to stay at it very long."
See you in November.