Ron Tarlaian Jr. hadn't been to Pimlico Race Course in 10 years. But yesterday, the 46-year-old car wholesaler from Severn decided to go in part because, on opening day of the summer-fall meet, admission was free.
"I just wanted to go out and see what the track looks like," said Tarlaian, whose track of choice is Laurel Park because it's closer to home. He goes there two or three days a week.
"It's a little more decrepit, a little older," he said of Pimlico. "Then again, I'm a little more decrepit, too. Last time I was here, I was 36."
On any other day that might have been the end of it, a quick and pleasant chat along the rail. But yesterday, as the weather changed from cloudy to stormy to sunny, one word intruded upon every conversation: slots.
"If they don't put slots here," Tarlaian said, "in two years you'll be talking to an empty bench."
Pimlico began what will be at least a seven-week meet just as the latest negotiations for slot machines collapsed in Annapolis.
On Tuesday, it looked as if the state's legislative leaders might agree to place a slots referendum on the November ballot. On Wednesday, it was clear the state's racing industry would trudge forward with no slots - and no additional dollars for purses and breeding programs - into a dark, uncertain future.
"Everybody was high for one day thinking that maybe there'd be a special session, that maybe Ehrlich and Busch were on the same page," said Bobby Lillis, a backstretch social worker for the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund. He was referring to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who have clashed repeatedly over slots.
"But today everybody's down," Lillis said. "It's as different as night and day."
The refrain has become so familiar that it hardly needs repeating. Tracks in Delaware and West Virginia have slots, which subsidize their racing, and tracks in Pennsylvania are going to get them in a year or two. Maryland was the region's No. 1 racing state before slots began tipping the balance. Now, with slots still not on the horizon, Maryland racing continues its downward spiral.
"I stood at the rail this morning, and all I heard was trainers saying they're going to get out of Maryland," said Lori Testerman, who trains 30 horses at Pimlico and has been stabled here for 20 years. "It's sad, very sad. I've got a 70-year-old mother I take care of. I've got a 9-year-old daughter in school. I'm local. My family's local. I just bought a house here. It's all very scary."
Nevertheless, Maryland racing isn't dead yet. Yesterday, on an afternoon that began uninvitingly with overcast skies, 4,317 people attended the races at Pimlico. Scheduled to last five weeks, the Pimlico meet will last at least seven so that workers can put the finishing touches on a new dirt track at Laurel Park.
The Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp., are rebuilding the dirt and turf tracks at Laurel. Although progress has been slower than expected, the dirt track is supposed to be ready for training Oct. 2 and for racing Oct. 28.
In addition, the MJC and Magna plan to build a new 14-barn stable with first-rate dormitories for backstretch workers at Laurel early next year.
At Pimlico, the current meet will feature the fall highlight of Maryland racing: the Maryland Million. The 12-race series for Maryland-sired horses will take place Oct. 9. The highly regarded program showcases the state's stallions, which remain tops in the region and continue to attract quality mares from out of the state.
Many breeders have taken their mares to neighboring states so they can have their babies and take advantage of lucrative breeding programs subsidized by slots - but not all breeders. In the past week, horses born in Maryland have won three stakes at Del Mar in California, as well as the $750,000 Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park.