I have been a Maryland horseman for more than 30 years, but it is only recently that I have become better acquainted with the issues that face the equine industry on our state. I started going to the Maryland Racing Commission meetings. Our group dedicated to preserving harness racing joined the Maryland Horse Council. I started talking to people involved with the thoroughbred community. And I have gotten a sense of the views that all segments of our industry would like to express to our elected officials as they once again debate expanded gambling.
Back in 2007 when the bill to allow casinos in Maryland first passed, it was done with the support and endorsement of the horse community in Maryland. A key reason that slots became an issue in Maryland was as a mechanism for casino interests to invest in racetracks, and in the process to get a foothold into the gambling market in the state. In return for our support, the horse racing industry was guaranteed a percentage of the gaming revenue and the promise of improved racing. That percentage was not a gift as some think; it was a way of ensuring that we would not be cast off after our help was no longer needed to secure alternative gaming.
Many horsemen felt they had no choice but to support the casino agenda, and I think that has hurt our industry. Horse racing and gambling interests are intertwined in this state — all the more so with Penn National Gaming's recent acquisition of Rosecroft Raceway and the possibility that it could be the location of a sixth casino — but they are not necessarily the same.
Horse racing and its related industries reach far beyond the racetrack. We support farms and open spaces. We purchase hay, straw and grain, which support our agricultural industry. We hire workers, buy equipment (trucks, tractors, trailers). We pay taxes. According to the Maryland Horse Industry Board, Maryland equine assets exceed $5.6 billion.
As the voices of the gaming companies, the lobbyists, the politicians and even the leadership of the horsemen's groups become louder and louder, the voices of the everyday horsemen in Maryland and their interests are being silenced. We need fans to see our sport. We need to publicize our sport. Casino ads are on the radio, television and billboards, but when have you seen one about horse racing? Those in positions of power seem to be interested in only one thing — fighting over gaming dollars, and that fight is killing us.
It is alarming to see and read articles about how much the gambling industry spends on lobbying, petitions, bankruptcies and lawyers and then being told by those same people that there is no money for purses and promotions. Our cause has somehow been dropped from the headlines in favor of the gaming cause. I am here to tell you that the "rest of us" are still here and care deeply for our industry and its ability to survive and contribute to Maryland's economy. The horses were here long before the recent interest in casinos, and we are seeking the support of those we have a history with and who have supported us over the years. Please don't give in to the distraction of the current gaming initiatives and instead help support Maryland horse people who have been a part of the state's heritage since its founding.
We need to reinvent how we market and promote horse racing, but that is hard to do unless you have people who are willing and empowered to do it. The Maryland horse community as a whole is a very strong and self-sufficient group. They are an asset to the state of Maryland and we need to keep them here.
So what would we like to see? If and when any expansion of gaming occurs, we would like to see a well thought out and open bidding process. If Penn National fails to secure a gaming site at Rosecroft Raceway, we would like to see the track ownership go to a group or individual whose main interest is live horse racing, and we may need the state of Maryland's help in achieving that goal.
Arthur Lisi is chairman of Preserve Harness Racing. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun