Editorial: It's time for Maryland's image of horse racing to be remolded

Slot machines have been up and raking in the cash in Maryland for long enough now that a discernible effect on purses at horse tracks should be at least on the horizon.

What that means for a faltering segment of the local entertainment industry is a more solid, and high profile, game plan needs to materialize sometime soon if the state is to score one of the main goals of legalized slot machine gambling for the general public. That goal was to use a portion of the take from slot machines to give the local thoroughbred scene an influx of cash that it would presumably parlay into generating a broad-based public interest in horse racing as a sport, not just a form of gambling.

Maryland has a storied past in horse racing lore, and a pedigree in the sport matched only by a few other places, like New York and, of course, Kentucky. That heritage was on display over the weekend in Havre de Grace as the celebration known as Graw Days was in full swing Saturday. A rather low-key affair with a decidedly highbrow focus, Graw Days was devised a few years back to rekindle local interest in the old Havre de Grace horse track, known as The Graw. The track's grandstand and a few other buildings can be picked out for what they once were on the grounds of what the track became, the Maryland National Guard Armory, though all have been converted for use on the military reserve.

This year, Graw Days HAD a number of speakers, well-versed in the ways of horse breeding, enlisted to talk about the finer points of breeding, following bloodlines and the anticipation and excitement of one of the few sports where animal and human work together, almost as one, in an effort to secure victory.

Sure, it's possible to approach horse racing strictly from a gambler's perspective: this horse is a 50-1 long shot, but there's reason to believe it'll finish first for whatever reason, so bet the farm. That's certainly an aspect of the sport, and unfortunately the one that tends to dominate in a world where the flash and sizzle of an effective publicity campaign have turned racing moonshine running cars into an elite activity, even as a failure to recruit new fans has resulted in the tarnishing of the image of the once elite sport of horse racing.

The same isn't necessarily true in other states where the thoroughbred tradition is strong. Though the Kentucky Derby is run on a Saturday, some school systems in the Bluegrass State are closed on the eve of the race because aspects of the weekend are intended for the whole family. Meanwhile, in Maryland, the second race of the Triple Crown is heralded by Kegasus, a beast that is half horse, half man and all drunken frat boy. Don't bring the kids. Don't count on anything bordering on intellectual stimulation.

It's worth keeping in mind that there are good public policy reasons for doing more than just hoping horse racing experiences a turn-around. A thoroughbred farm is an employment center, and also serves as one of the most reliable forms of agricultural preservation, namely it's a profitable farm. There's no reason to sell off a profitable farm for development, if the long term prospects for that farm's products are solid, be those products corn or horses.

Until the luster of horse racing that has existed locally in the past, and is also part of the allure of the sport elsewhere in the country, is restored locally, it is going to be hard for its benefits to be expanded in Maryland, in general, and Harford County, in particular.

While this lament has been expressed in the past, it's especially relevant these days as there is an opportunity with the infusion of slot machine money to give thoroughbred racing broader appeal comparable to what it enjoyed decades ago.

That opportunity won't be around forever, though, and it won't be helped any by the likes of Kegasus.

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