MARYLAND RACING is limping along these days, unsure of the future and alarmed about recent trends. The advent of slot machines at two Delaware tracks already has cost Maryland racing business and threatens local track viability.
In just one month, slots at two Delaware tracks took in $68 million and kept $8.3 million to enlarge racing purses. That has Maryland officials alarmed. Already, Rosecroft Raceway has been staggered by the loss of quality harness horses and bettors. What will happen in April, when a cash-flush Delaware Park goes head-to-head with Baltimore's Pimlico? A racing consultant predicts a 15 percent decline in business. It could get worse as the Delaware tracks raise purses far beyond Maryland's.
Track owner Joe De Francis would love to install his own slots. He has plans to renovate Pimlico, making the facility comfortable, attractive and safe. But that would take $100 million. Thus, he has proposed a comprehensive slots-at-the-tracks bill. He faces an uphill battle this session, though.
His back-up plan is regulatory reform. The state racing commission micromanages tracks. Just to raise admission prices or the price of a program requires its consent. By eliminating needless red tape and having the state run the tracks' chemical testing labs, owners could save $1.4 million. That would ease the financial strain a bit and free up extra purse money.
Maryland tracks need flexibility to respond to competition. Given the Delaware threat, regulatory reform is the least legislators can do right now to help an important local industry.