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Beating the odds

I HAVE AN octogenarian friend who, as a kid, would cut school to watch the horses race. He saw Seabiscuit defeat War Admiral. He is a horse racing fan.

But when asked about Maryland horse racing today, the passion for the sport he loves evaporates. "It is depressing, too depressing," he says.

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He is not alone, too many fans agree.

For 250 years, Maryland was a leading horse racing state. The Maryland Jockey Club, the oldest sports association in the country, boasted governors and presidents as members. The blood of Maryland mare Selima runs through Man o' War. We can brag about our racing heritage. We don't.

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Today's Maryland horse industry has been estimated to be worth more than $5 billion in total assets, including 200,000 acres of protected open space, thriving recreational riding programs and hundreds of small horse-related businesses that contribute more to state coffers than the high-profile Ravens or Orioles.

Yet the vital racing portion of the industry has been neglected to the point of collapse; its facilities run down, race cards lackluster, leadership with vision absent.

Before summer is over, thousands of moviegoers will see the film Seabiscuit, in which Maryland represents the racing aristocracy, with a legion of wildly enthusiastic fans, and Pimlico is a landmark of classic luxury.

Neglect has frayed this grand past.

It is 2003, and hearings have resumed for legislation authorizing racetrack owners to convert properties to slot machine emporiums. We are told this move is necessary to save the horse industry. Slots revenue will deliver the hopes and dreams of racing fans. Track owners will plow gambling profits into promoting the sport.

So will it, or is this a sucker's bet? Are we being led down the primrose path? What will stabilize and save the state's horse industry?

Slots at tracks are about creating gambling palaces. The primary focus is video machines, not horse racing. Track owners - not horse owners, breeders, fans, the state treasury or hundreds of others who comprise the industry - would reap the profits. In this sweepstakes, those responsible for the decline of the industry by planned neglect are the big winners.

If you have any doubt about where the sport of racing factors in the slots scenario, consider the first bill submitted to the legislature last year. The bill abolished the Maryland Racing Commission, the regulatory body protecting the public from fraud. Live racing was not assured. No provision protected the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, from moving out of state. Contribution to race purse accounts was parsimonious.

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It is hard to believe those who want to convert racetracks into slot barns are concerned about the future of the sport. Turning tracks into emporiums not only detracts from the sport, it trivializes it to the level of a side show attraction.

What can we do?

We can recognize that we have two independent industries, state-supported gaming and privately owned but state-regulated horse racing, and we can direct policies to protect and enhance the fiscal viability of both, independent of the other.

We can utilize the borrowing power of the Stadium Authority to renovate worn-out facilities and negotiate a management contract with the track owners.

We can use existing state resources to benefit the horse industry. For example, state-owned Fair Hill in Cecil County is strategically situated near the borders of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, a premier location for a first-class horse sales site.

We can dedicate a special horse lottery wrapped around the Triple Crown season dedicated to purse accounts, the single most important feature to ensure competitive racing.

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We can develop a long-overdue, statewide coordinated marketing plan for the entire horse industry, decoupled from the track owner's narrow public relations vision. The horse industry is currently dependent on the good will of the track owners, which leads to business fragmentation. The marketing of Seabiscuit demonstrates the doldrums the industry is in. While other racing states understood the opportunity the film brings for increasing the fan base, Maryland's industry leaders have run the other way, staging a one-time gala but declining to take advantage of the brilliant book by a local author, featuring a Maryland event that riveted a nation, to promote enthusiasm for local racing.

We can use our bragging rights. Maryland is home to the second-largest standard-bred breeder in the nation. We have been home to racing greats such as Cigar, War Admiral, Native Dancer, Kelso and Northern Dancer. We awarded the first trophy in a Jockey Club race, the Annapolis Subscription Cup, in 1743. We are the birthplace of thoroughbred racing.

We can establish a Maryland Horse Center to tell the grand stories of this grand sport in the life of this grand state.

We can do much more. We can do better.

Seabiscuit will introduce the excitement and exhilaration of the Sport of Kings to a new generation. Above all, it is a story of heart and hope and courage and attitude, and about doing your dream. This is appropriate inspiration for an industry that has been and needs to be a winner. It is time to change the pain of the fans who murmur, "It's depressing."

Ellen Moyer is the mayor of Annapolis and was a member of the Maryland Racing Commission.


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