In horse world, a cautious response

The Baltimore Sun

Those in the state's struggling horse racing industry aren't jumping for joy over slot machine gambling facing a November 2008 referendum.

While acknowledging it as a positive step, and that slot machines are closer than ever, those in the industry aren't sure how they will bridge the gap before slots could be up and running.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said not too many horsemen are thrilled with a referendum that puts the issue more years down the road.

"Am I happy?" he said. "It's a mixed emotion. It's like me telling you I just bought you a new car. I know you're 100 miles from home and that you have to cross the Sahara Desert and your air conditioner isn't working. But if you get here, you can have the new, fast car with the fine air conditioning in two years.

"The question is how do you get to where you want to get? It's a real mixed emotion. We don't know if the referendum will pass or if the car will break down on the way across the desert."

In Crownsville, trainer Ben Feliciano could barely get his words out when asked about the decision to send the slots question to voters.

"Oh my, oh my, I'm not far from getting ready to move out of Maryland. I don't know how much longer I can take it," Feliciano said. "I'm hopeful this means we can get them [slots] and can compete with the other tracks. ... I'll try to hang on until the vote."

Maryland's horse racing community, the oldest in the nation, has been trying to survive for nearly a decade in a business that has been increasingly supported in other states by slot machine revenue. Maryland is surrounded by states that have slot machines generating millions of dollars for racing purses and breeding industries.

Horse breeder Mike Pons, who was at Philadelphia Park yesterday where he was running one of his horses "because the money is so much better," said he is relieved that the decision about slots "has finally gotten in front of the people." But he is concerned about the vote.

"We're all scared it won't pass," he said. "And if it doesn't, what then? But this is a positive step. It has to be presented in the right way. It has to be a vote for Maryland: Yes, we want lower property taxes. Yes, we want health care. ... Yes, for Maryland."

Pons said getting the referendum passed will be difficult.

"It will be the fight of our lives," he said.

Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Lou Raffetto, while more hopeful about Maryland's racing future than he has been in a long time, was among those who would have preferred that the legislature had decided the issue, so the industry could plan its future.

"But this gives us a fighting chance to do battle," Raffetto said. "It gives us a chance to campaign and fight for the referendum to ensure we can maintain Maryland's racing history and its future."

Raffetto said he hopes "people understand the very survival of the horse industry depends on their vote."

Because purse money is lacking, racing has been cut from five days a week to four at Laurel Park from Jan. 1 through April 12. Raffetto made it known last month that if there was no help from the legislature, he would consider cutting three weeks from the spring schedule at Pimlico Race Course.

"The question remains, how do we get to November 2008?" Raffetto said. "We still have to be concerned from a purse perspective. And we don't know the answer to the referendum: Will it pass? And where would the revenue come from between now and 2009, when we might get slot machines?"

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