With voter approval of slot machines in Tuesday's election, Maryland's horse racing industry knows it has gotten a clean break from the starting gate in chasing what promises to be a substantial increase in revenue. But breeders, owners, trainers, track operators and everyone else involved also know they have a long way to go in realizing the promise of what slots money might mean to their flagging industry.
"This is a first step," said Mike Pons, who owns a breeding farm in Bel Air and a training facility in Baltimore County. "There are still issues of [casino] financing and construction. So there is a long ways to go. ... This will mean tens of thousands of jobs."
Among the jubilant horse interests are officials of the Maryland Jockey Club and its Canadian-based parent, Magna Entertainment, which owns Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the Preakness Stakes. The Jockey Club will apply for one of five slots licenses with the hope of having slots at Laurel.
Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said passage of the slots referendum should bring improvements at both tracks and help ensure that the Preakness Stakes stays in the state. "If we were fortunate enough to receive a license, it opens up things so that now we can improve not only Laurel but also Pimlico," he said. "I've always considered Pimlico a jewel, and … [slots revenue] allows us to create the venues that would revitalize Pimlico."
A major complaint in the Maryland racing industry has been that it could not compete with tracks in neighboring states where the industry is subsidized by slots money. Among the advantages that slots revenue has afforded racing there are cash bonuses for top-finishing horses that are bred in-state. Such bonuses encourage horsemen to move operations to those states, and their gain has often been Maryland's loss.
"If this had not passed, I think it's fair to say that there were people waiting who had their bags packed and were ready to leave," said Jim Steele, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "I think some may still leave because it's going to be a few years [before slots revenue is generated], but it gives some people hope to hang in there and see how this pans out."
Chris Grove, a trainer and lifelong Marylander who works his horses at the Bowie training facility and does most of his racing at Laurel Park, said that if slots had not passed, he was ready to move out of the state at the beginning of next year.
"The future is definitely brighter, but we have to use the money wisely and we can't make any mistakes," Grove said. "You have to start out with [increasing] the purses, but you have to also move on to [help] the breeding industry. You have to keep what's already here and preserve the tradition and legacy of Maryland racing."