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News Maryland Harford County Bel Air

Time to stop horsing around [Editorial]

Disturbing though it has been that the windfall of tax revenue from the legalization of casino gambling in Maryland has failed to prevent increases in the sales tax rate and the tax on gasoline, some consolation can be found in Maryland's thoroughbred horse industry and, by extension, Harford County's.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of thoroughbred horse racing in Maryland. The Old Line State ranked with Kentucky and New York as an epicenter for the very popular spectator sport of horse racing. That's why the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore is, along with the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, part of the sport's premier annual event. It is a sporting tradition that, as it approaches its 140th anniversary in a couple of years, makes the Super Bowl look like a Johnny come lately. Even the World Series, with a little more than a century under its belt, is a relative newcomer.

Maryland's Piedmont, dominated by pasture lands, gives the state one of its signature environs: a style of horse country that bears more than a passing resemblance to the English countryside where steeplechase racing has its roots.

Tastes in sports change. It has been decades since a day at the race track could be considered a potential family event. It's unfortunate because horse racing is exciting, with or without the added attraction of gambling.

Pro baseball games remain popular spectator attractions, even as the game is vastly different than it was 100 years ago. The football game of the modern era is vastly different from what was played in the pre-Super Bowl era. The helmets alone have changed substantially.

Horse racing has failed to keep pace, and came to rely on gambling as its major draw. Horse tracks and their grandstands, except on days of big races like the Preakness, have been generally devoid of all but the most ardent fans and a cast of handicappers.

In Maryland, the sport had experienced an atrophy as the fan base dwindled and various kinds of state support to boost race winners purses came into being in other places. Even as the sport was able to embrace technology in Kentucky and New York – not to mention California and Pennsylvania – in Maryland breeders, trainers and horse farm operators struggled to keep up.

Enter casino gambling. Maryland's thoroughbred industry cast a wary eye on gaming when it was proposed for the state. The state's tracks, after all, had a near monopoly on the private gambling industry, even as it was less able each year to capitalize on that business edge.

When slot machines and the table games were made legal, a comparatively small percentage of the tax take went into purses for winners of Maryland horse races and other financial incentives for the local horse industry.

It seems the subsidy is beginning to have the intended effect.

At Country Life Farm in Bel Air, a facility associated with plenty of champion race horses, for the first time in several seasons, stallions will be standing to breed this season. Casino revenue is putting $3 million a month into bonuses for breeders, money that just wasn't part of the Maryland race horse business model a few years back, and that appears to be breathing new life into the local horse breeding industry.

As a public policy, the support for horse racing has plenty of benefits beyond the people it employs. It also allows for horse farms to be maintained, thus preserving the Maryland countryside, at least to some extent, and keeping it from falling to residential development.

No amount of casino tax support, however, will keep the horse racing industry alive in Maryland, or anywhere else, by itself. The sport needs to attract a new, broader base of fans. The next step in reviving the horse industry in a meaningful way will have to focus less on breeder incentives and purse subsidies and more on turning a day at the race track into an experience that is comparable to an evening at the ballpark.

Without a more substantial fan base, no amount of casino subsidy will be able to save horse racing over the long haul.

Fortunately, the sport has a lot more to offer than has been evident in recent decades. If the excitement of the races were paired with pleasant dining opportunities and other entertainment amenities, the horse track would evolve into a destination that could leave casinos in the dust.

Such a change is going to involve more than just more breeder incentives and bigger purses. Those changes, however, seem to have been a good start at sparking a revival.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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