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The Tentacle


September 18, 2007

Bye-Bye, Bangtails?

Roy Meachum

The Sun's front page headline Sunday shouted: MD NOT HOLDING ITS RACE HORSES. In not much smaller print, an editor wrote: "Purses, incentives sending breeders and farmers to Pa."

In the accompanying article, reporter Andrew Green writes how other states utilize their profits from slot machines to lure Maryland breeders, owners and traders. Pennsylvania seems the biggest winner, but West Virginia chimes right in there.

In arguments sure to please the racing crowd, Mr. Green sums up the problems faced: from the start, fewer foals see their first light in the state. Owners bypass Maryland tracks. Breeders are skipping over the border leaving their spreads behind.

The reporter would have readers believe only slot machines can save the industry that gave win-place-and-show to the world and, in Kentucky, the mint julep, the celebration libation for May's annual derby.

In light of that last fact, the story seems way off the mark when it asserts the people lined up at the rail are generally blue collared workers of the world. It makes the situation into a civil rights fight, as if the failure to install slots is depriving the lower economic classes of their rights. Barely mentioned is the less than persuasive reasoning: Do it for the kids and schools.

In other words, the racing moguls, aided and more than abetted by willing media, are pulling out all stops to help the politicians deliver what few people want. How do I know?

Figures from tracks across the country show the railbirds have been for years shrinking in attendance. Industry officials would have you believe the absence of slots have everything to do with dwindling revenue. Nonsense.

Not objectively but with strong pro-racing bias, The Sun's Andrew Green maintains that Maryland's family farms will vanish before the last race is run, the victim of developers' greed and uncaring politicians. Bushwa, as folks say in Louisiana.

Remembering the excitement "meets" generated for New Orleans Fair Grounds before World War II, I hear loudly today's silence from the lack of buzz. Who knows when they're off? And who cares?

The King of Sports reigned supreme in the age bereft of television. There was no other legal outlet for man's natural instinct to believe he can always get something for nothing.

Before they were made legitimate, lotteries took nickels to play and winners received far fewer dollars than runners-up today. There was no competition from the razzle-dazzle generated by pro football and basketball.

Baseball has always had its adherents but many, including me, find a game's progress on par with watching grass grow, interrupted by occasional bursts of balletic action. Come to think of it, that pretty much describes attending horse races.

Most of the afternoon goes to milling about, trips to the betting window, visiting with other enthusiasts and grabbing a drink or a meal. The routine is disturbed by half-hour intervals of pounding excitement followed instantly by a feeling that the day is wasting away. Unless you happen to hold a ticket in-the-money, that is.

By and large, that sensation of beating the odds seldom happens; otherwise how could the racing industry have endowed so many fortunes?

Make no mistake; the constantly mounting surge for slots comes from people who expect taxpayers to pony up to replace their dwindling revenues. This is why they "paper" politicians' campaign trails with significant contributions. With much more to follow when they get their way.

In an economy beset by huge federal deficits, the industry's siren appeals have particular appeal at the state and local levels.

Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the current occupant of state house, Gov. Martin O'Malley, celebrate their differences from each other. But both sound very much alike singing the racing industry's song.

Why? As human beings they prefer getting money willingly given up, by bettors, as opposed to reaching for revenue from taxes everybody hates. Joining the chorus are go-along, get-along folks like the state Senate president, who sees more available public money as his way to greater personal power.

House Speaker Michael Busch has endured incredible abuse solely because he refused to climb aboard their horse-drawn wagon. But in his latest comments, the speaker has warned he may not be able to thwart the will and the drive of the track lobby. He virtually concedes slots will become legal for the state.

In the continuing argument I've stated before my position: as a child of Big Easy I cannot honestly deny any other person the right to a personal vice. It would be hypocritical if I condemned racing as morally wrong while I have been guilty of greater abominations.

Still, I hate to see my long-adopted state slip further down the well-oiled slope that leads to bigger and bigger government, in the model of George W. Bush.

Expanding gambling's easy money presents no guarantee that deficits will vanish forevermore; only when the next recession arrives the increased tax bites will hurt much, much more. I promise.



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