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Gambling on a Roll


Anyone opposing the extension of legalized gambling throughout Maryland had better step aside: a united horse-racing industry has revved up its locomotive and is about to ram through an off-track betting bill in Annapolis.

Racing officials have plenty of help, too -- from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, from licensing secretary William Fogle and from the compliant Maryland Racing Commission. All of them think OTB is a fabulous idea.

We beg to differ. This plan is a thinly veiled attempt to open up Maryland to legalized gambling. It would begin with two OTB parlors in the Baltimore and Washington areas. The existing tracks would have veto power over the site locations. Then two more sites would be selected, probably near Elkton and in Western Maryland. These gamblers' havens could have day and night televised racing and wagering, along with sophisticated computerized consoles to help gamblers make their selections. There would be fancy restaurants and bars, too.

It would be a simple, short step to add other forms of gambling, perhaps even of the casino variety. That's not the kind of "economic development" Maryland should be seeking. It would attract professional bettors and encourage addicted gamblers to throw their money away.

Track owners and others in the racing industry maintain that OTB is essential for horse racing to continue to prosper in Maryland. They claim off-site wagering would increase fan interest, the track handle and purses. But OTB also would create a huge bonanza for the track operators.

Before state lawmakers buy this pig in a poke, they had better take a hard look at the long-range consequences and the weak excuses for pushing Maryland into off-track betting. Yes, Pennsylvania has two OTB parlors -- far from the Mason-Dixon Line. A third parlor in Lancaster still won't be close enough to pose a threat. Meanwhile, the chances of OTB parlors springing up in Virginia are growing slimmer all the time.

Given the precarious future of Maryland's two harness tracks, it makes no sense to act on OTB until that situation has been clarified. Business at the two thoroughbred tracks remains modestly strong -- especially during a time of economic bad news. There's no reason to rush precipitously into off-track betting. It would be a dangerous precedent. Lawmakers should not embrace gambling as a state-approved growth industry.

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