By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - The timing seemed too perfect to be a coincidence.
At about 10:45 a.m. Thursday, the Maryland Jockey Club issued a press release announcing cancellation of this year's Pimlico Special, one of the state's most prestigious horse races, due to insufficient funds for its $500,000 purse.
A little over two hours later a group of 13 industry representatives appeared before lawmakers and painted a dire picture of Maryland horse racing, saying they could not continue to compete financially with neighboring states that had slot machines at their racetracks.
"I think it's perfect timing," said William K. Boniface, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. The Harford County breeder said that while Gov. Martin O'Malley had supported horse racing and breeders during his campaign, he had failed to include a slots bill in his legislative package, and had not even mentioned the ailing industry since the election.
"Our governor has turned his back on us," Boniface said. "He's going to raise your taxes, but he's not going to raise your revenue with slot machines."
Despite the one-two punch, however, not all lawmakers are convinced that gambling venues are the answer to the industry's financial woes.
"We're still not going to do anything this year," said Alex Hughes, spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, the General Assembly's leading slots opponent.
Hughes noted that the Pimlico Special was also cancelled in 2002 for the same reasons without any adverse affects. She said the speaker was open to "comprehensive revenue enhancements" but that slots alone would not get his personal approval.
Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said Friday that the cancellation announcement was not intended to sway the legislators one way or the other and he believed that it would not have an impact on slots legislation this year.
"The entire industry is under duress," he said. "This just underscores that."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George's, has long been a supporter of slots legislation, and Friday called the race's cancellation a "shame" and a "tragedy."
"It makes the whole country aware of how Maryland has diminished in racing stature," he said.
The Pimlico Special, which would have run on May 18, is the most prominent race in the state after the $1,000,000 Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown. The race achieved celebrity status during its second year in 1938, when Seabiscuit upset War Admiral in what was later dubbed the "Race of the Century" by Sports Illustrated.
The decision to cancel the race this year, was "difficult" and "disappointing," Jockey Club officials told legislators, but it was their most financially viable option in order to save purse money. The group said that they have already cut racing in Maryland to less than half of the year, and that scratching the Pimlico Special was a better option than reducing their number of "twilight" races. This, they said, would at least keep racing on a year-round calendar for owners and breeders.
"We've cut back on stakes, we've cut back on days, we've cut everything else you can cut here," said Alan Foreman, spokesman for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
The industry, he said, was simply asking to be put on a level playing field with the surrounding states, which can offer purses that were "artificially infused" with slots money. Foreman, Raffetto and others said they would support legislation that included slots as part of a larger tax reform package, but noted that the effects of such legislation would take two to three years to have a financial impact.
"The ideal would be to have government [financial] supplements now, then slots for the long term operational," Foreman said.
Horse breeders are also making the case that the woes of the racing industry have trickled down to Maryland breeding farms. Boniface said his own business has been cut by 35 percent.
He noted that Maryland horse farms, which the state has been encouraging as a means of preserving open space, are now struggling to remain profitable. Once a farm goes out of business, it cannot be replaced by another, he said, and the land is usually used for new housing.
"We've just been allowed to deteriorate because of politics while the states around us have been allowed to grow their industries," Boniface said. "It's become a laughing stock."
Despite this latest temperature reading on the health of Maryland's racing industry, Miller acknowledged that slots would still be a "tough sell" this year in the General Assembly. "It just points up the major problem that many of us here in Annapolis choose to ignore," he said.