By Frank Vespe, That's Amore Stable
Sometime Tuesday night - or perhaps Wednesday morning - our
nation will have a new president-elect.
racing will have a future. Or not.
voters will decide Tuesday on a proposed amendment to the state constitution
that would allow slot machines in the state for the first time 40 years. Under the complicated disbursement agreement
crafted by the state legislature, Maryland
racing stands to receive from the one-armed bandits tens of millions of dollars
for purse enhancements and breeder bonuses and awards.
Of course, that's only if the amendment passes. And a recent Zogby Interactive poll, which
actually puts slots opponents slightly in the lead, suggests that passage is by
no means guaranteed.
I don't get slots. I
don't see what's fun about them, or why anyone would want to spend their
hard-earned cash sitting in front of a slot machine while hoping, in essence,
to get hit by lightning.
But any clear-eyed analyst can tell you that Maryland racing,
besieged on three borders by racing states with slots-enhanced purses, must
have slots if it is to survive. Our
ability to compete with our nearby rivals depends on our having the same tools
that they do - including slot machines.
Not so many years ago, flat racing in Delaware
was nearly extinct; the West Virginia tracks
were home to a steady stream of bottom claimers running for paltry purses; and Pennsylvania tracks were
of no real consequence. Maryland racing was the
mid-Atlantic's big cheese.
These days, however, the cheese is getting a little rancid.
From my perspective, as an owner, the effects of our
slots-less stature are apparent every time we run a race or pay a bill. Over the last five years, the costs of
keeping a horse in training have gone up significantly, as much as 20 to 25
percent. Meanwhile, Maryland's purses have come down by nearly
10 percent over the same period. It
doesn't take a degree in math to see where this trend goes.
This week, That's Amore Stable will be running two horses
out-of-state, one in Delaware and one in Pennsylvania. Though we didn't send them elsewhere for
better purses - both needed a race that wasn't coming around in Maryland - the
purses in both cases are at least $2,000 more than the similar race at home.
A couple grand will buy a lot of hay and oats, and many
races have even bigger spreads. A first
level allowance in Delaware, for example, pays
$8,000 more than the same race in Maryland.
The result, of course, is economic migration. Trainers and owners - and their horses - vote
with their feet. This past Friday, just
40 horses lined up for the six dirt races contested at Laurel - and nine of
those were in a bottom-level maiden race, a condition for which there are
always plenty of horses. (Laurel's top-quality grass
course continues to draw sizable fields).
And that is the leading indicator of the vicious circle in
racing finds itself: lower purses, smaller fields, reduced handle, lower
purses... Another trend whose end is easy
You could fill a War
and Peace-sized volume with the mistakes that Maryland racing's leaders have made. The same, of course, is true of racetracks
all over the country. And those are
problems that, in the long run, will need to be fixed if the sport is to
But the immediate problem facing Maryland racing is not one of its own
making. It is, quite simply, that our
nearby competitors have revenue sources - namely, slots - not available to
us. That allows them to increase purses
and attract more and better horses.
We're fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.
The old curse - May you live in interesting times -
certainly applies to Maryland
horsemen, who live in fear that this (possibly) last, best opportunity to get
the tools we need to be competitive may again go begging. That we might wake up on Wednesday to
discover that an increasingly untenable status quo is all we're going to have,
that we have no real future at all.
Interesting times, indeed.