Slots aren't the answer to what ails the tracks

The Baltimore Sun

Here's what the people who run Laurel Park are willing to do to get you and me, betting customers, through the gates between now and the end of the year: half-price beers every time a randomly selected jockey wins a race on a Friday; a "special surprise" if one of us grabs the lucky rubber ducky out of the Laurel Lucky Duck Pond between 11 a.m. and noon Nov. 8; free apple or pumpkin pie to the first 5,500 fans on Thanksgiving Day; "Live Pasta Station" every Thursday in the Terrace Dining Room; free ice scraper to the first 4,000 fans Dec. 13.

They're also giving away $10,000 in mutuel vouchers - in amounts varying from $2 to $1,000 - to the first 1,500 fans over 18 who walk into the track this Saturday.

All of which is nice. All of which means they're trying to encourage customers to spend their entertainment dollars on the horses. Things have been tough at the tracks - the customer base has been slowly dying off - so every little bit helps. I don't knock the little bits. But what's needed is big bits, a whole new approach to getting people to the tracks, assuming it's even possible and not too late.

When Marylanders go to the polls a week from today to vote on the slots referendum, those who vote yes on Question 2 will be voting to keep a legacy sport going in Maryland. That's horse racing, of course, the beneficiary of a portion of the proceeds from up to 15,000 slot machines that would be installed across the state. It's a sport that has been in decline for years, with fewer betting customers in attendance, racing dates reduced and more and more Marylanders regarding the whole scene as a quaint anachronism.

While the revenue from slots will give the sport an injection of funds for purses, potentially making the meets at Laurel and Pimlico attractive again to trainers and owners, it's not going to bring new customers through the turnstiles or increase handles.

That's a shame. Even when I lose money, a day at the races beats just about anything around here for live entertainment. The track is a great place to watch human beings of all colors, shapes and styles of dress as they size up horses and jockeys, make bets and watch their money take a ride. The horses are exquisite athletes. There's an emotional buildup to every race and a burst of drama as the horses come down the stretch, all that muscle and flesh and hooves rumbling through the sand, with the crowd, however meager, rising and screaming.

Still, not enough people make time for this anymore. Or they have too many other things to do. For the bettor, there are other forms of gambling, starting with the Lottery, and soon there will be more. I don't see the slots crowd stepping away from their machines, studying the Racing Form and betting on ponies - or even looking up at a simulcast.

Expecting slots regulars to become track regulars is expecting too much. The slots player prefers a game that neither involves skill nor requires thinking. Playing the ponies well takes a working brain. Not enough people have made a day at the races - other than maybe the Preakness - one of their regular experiences.

So what we'll be doing, by voting to legalize slots, is providing some cash for an industry that has been losing daily customers for years. An expert on gambling, William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, was pessimistic about horse racing's recovery when I interviewed him last week. He agreed that sending some slots revenue to racing will prop up an industry that would otherwise die off.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just keep it in mind as you consider Question 2.

What Pimlico and Laurel need are major renovations, new leadership and a marketing campaign to appeal to the young and the hip, the same crowd that likes the live action of casinos - not the boring video voodoo of slot parlors. There's an investor on the scene now who's talking this game. Halsey Minor, a technology entrepreneur who made a small fortune when he sold the Internet company he founded, wants to acquire Pimlico and Laurel from Magna Entertainment Corp., and he says he's not interested in the slots that have been proposed for Laurel Park. He called them a "cancer" at an anti-slots news conference last week.

Minor also was quoted on a thoroughbred breeder's blog pledging to give both tracks a face-lift - of about $90 million - and to run them better than Magna does. It's nice to hear this kind of talk: Make Laurel and Pimlico classier places, and people from all over might start to regard them as entertainment destinations. They might even become family-friendly places.

James Burger, Baltimore photographer and such a racetrack booster he should be state commissioner, has long advocated free parking, free admission, free pony rides on the infields for the kids, Friday night racing and concerts, anything to get people into the tracks. We agree that reviving the sport of horse racing in the state of Maryland, by getting more betting customers through the gates, should not be that hard. It just takes leadership, the vision thing and smart, eager marketing.

Oh, and free ice scrapers.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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