Though the General Assembly debate over slots was dominated by doom-and-gloom predictions about the future of horse racing in Maryland, Saturday's 128th running of the Preakness Stakes is hardly likely to be the last at Pimlico Race Course.

With the Preakness tradition dating back more than a century and state legislation passed 18 years ago, any attempt to move the second leg of the Triple Crown out of Old Hilltop would face significant, if not insurmountable, hurdles, say track owners and others in the horse industry.

Nevertheless, when Maryland's horse racing elite gather Saturday, many will be mourning the celebration that might have been had Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's slot machines bill passed.

Equine interests would have been able to look forward to a steady flow of money into Maryland's purse fund, fattening prizes and stabilizing the ailing racing industry. The future of the Preakness in Baltimore would not be in question.

"It would have been a party of worldwide repute," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, derailed Ehrlich's slots legislation in committee by saying it needs a year of study.

Now, said Evans, the Preakness is "going to be more like a wake than a horse race."

People in the industry are worried about the future of racing in the face of slot machine-subsidized competition from neighboring states. Ehrlich shares that concern.

"The state of horse racing is not healthy," the governor said this week. "The day after the Preakness, all concern for horse racing seems to cease."

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club, has been raising the possibility that the Preakness could leave since 1996. But this week he said Baltimore will be home to the second jewel in the Triple Crown for at least several years to come.

"As long as racing in Maryland remains a viable business, then the Preakness will continue to be in Maryland and at Pimlico racetrack," he said.

But farther down the road, the picture starts to look murky, De Francis said. Whether the industry can remain viable is a "broader and more complex question," he said.

De Francis says he remains personally committed to keeping the race at Pimlico, which would have been allowed to install 3,500 slot machines under the bill passed by the Senate but defeated in a House committee.

"The last thing I ever want is for my family name to be associated with the loss of the Preakness from Maryland," said De Francis, whose father owned the track before he did.

The Maryland Jockey Club is now owned by Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp., which has kept De Francis on board as chief executive of the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks.

Magna has publicly pledged to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, and to invest $15 million in improvements at Pimlico and Laurel. So far, Magna has given priority to renovations at Laurel.

Aside from tradition and promised investments, the Preakness is tightly bound to Maryland by a 1985 law that cut the state's taxes on horse racing.

If the owner of Pimlico were to sell the rights to the Preakness to an out-of-state track, its taxes would revert to pre-1985 levels, making it "completely impossible" to do business in Maryland, De Francis said.

The law gives Maryland the right of first refusal to purchase the rights to the Preakness and would allow the Maryland Racing Commission to revoke all of Pimlico's racing days if the Preakness were moved, De Francis said.