Will Slots Save Us? A Horse Community Divided Will Not Stand

August 2008

by David A. Turner

 

After work recently, I rushed to Baltimore for an exhibit of old horse portraits by Franklin Voss and a lecture on"The History of Maryland's Horse Industry." What I got was a pitch for slots.

The speaker's slide show was courtesy of the Thoroughbred breeders' lobby, and it was tailored to an audience supportive of Maryland's equestrian lifestyle. Preserving historic fields around farms and racetracks was his opening argument, but he sold the goods with slides of newborns struggling to their feet, broodmares in pastures and proudnecked stallions. "Maryland," said the speaker,"is poised to be among a handful of horse-producing states, or to surrender that honor forever." Horse breeding is the backbone of this equestrian way of life, and enlarging that part of the industry in modern society requires incentives. Dollar incentives are needed to maintain pastures, promote studs and train foals. And though he didn't mention it, those incentives aren't required just for Thoroughbred farms.

Few in the audience were gamblers and fewer still could distinguish a Standardbred weanling from a Paso Fino filly. But they grasped the importance of economic incentives for horse breeding. Keeping Maryland a horsey state, it seems, will require every cent of the $100 million slice of slot revenues being channeled to bigger racing purses.

The speaker's presentation did not explain how slot revenues will serve as an incentive for any but a small slice of Maryland's horse world. Perhaps 15 percent of the dollars awarded to race horses - and only for flattrack racing - would go to livestock bred and raised in Maryland. Beyond that, some matching funds could go to racetrack owners to repair facilities. None of the money would prop up the larger portions of horse sports and activities, and none would help lure young people to the equestrian life being sold in the PowerPoint show. Questioned about this, the speaker made three Cassandralike assertions:"Without slots, no more racehorse breeding. Without Thoroughbreds no more horses in Maryland, period!" Finally,"Doing anything is better than doing nothing!" Anything, apparently, includes placing the rights of slot machines into our state constitution.

Kentucky's Vision
My interest in the slot issue is entirely horse-oriented: Distilled out are the fear of gambling's evil influence, or the fear of higher taxes should slot money flow only to other states' coffers. One approach worth considering is already working in Kentucky. There, horsemen have laid out a method for sharing similarly vast amounts of state money in a way that helps all Kentucky's horsemen.

Three years ago, their Thoroughbred folks found their way to thousands of hearts like mine and solved longstanding industry problems. It seems that, powerful as they once had been on the state scene, Thoroughbred people's lobbying presence had slipped even in the bluegrass counties. Lawmakers balked at providing essential help. Just as frightening, they needed allies for internal struggles against racing's hardcore gaming interests of the non-horse variety. In 2006, they wised up and established an unassailable ally, the rest of Kentucky's horse lovers. Their decision process started with listening. Kentucky Thoroughbred breeders weighed the dire threats facing their equestrian neighbors.

Try it out. If you're in a racingrelated operation, ask yourself: How concerned are you about the beloved colt futurities featuring Arab foals or Saddlebreds or dressage breed classes leaving their Maryland venues for those in surrounding states--or worse, shutting down? How involved are you with the compelling needs of horse show organizers who are hard strapped, or carriage enthusiasts in southern Maryland? And, except as targets for dumping failed racing stock, really look at the needs of those delightful people who adopt mutt horses and then dedicate time-- no less precious than yours--to fight developers who threaten local boarding stables and riding areas near the family's suburban home?

Is your answer a yawn, or"I'm too busy"? Kentucky breeders recognized such a response is shortsighted. As in Maryland, the Kentuckians lacked a meaningful horse industry alliance and were suffering a string of failures. In short, they realized that even though the industry's ship was sinking,"First me; I'm most important!" isn't the most compelling cry to rescuers.

So, led by Thoroughbred breeders, the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) was formed. Power hitters from the Quarter Horse world, elsewhere, and from locally influential groups like handicapped riding charity organizations were included on the board. It divides large state revenues in a way that benefits all breeds. KEEP gives money to new horse shows, not just races, and the pot just gets larger and larger. My cherished breed, the American Saddlebred, is a relatively small part of the regional scene. Nevertheless, $160,000 from the state-tax generated funds went into 2008's breeding incentive program for our [Saddlebred] farms. [The Kentucky] organization targeted it to fouryear- old sweepstakes horses sired by Kentucky Saddlebred stallions at Kentucky-based Saddlebred facilities. The result? The burgeoning incentive dollars helped spur owners from Washington, D.C. to Missouri to relocate their holdings to the Bluegrass State.

Nationwide, horse industry enhancement programs vary in their revenue sources. In Virginia, it is drawn from general state appropriations and directed to all breeds when funds are available; in Illinois, it's from gaming money; [and] in Kentucky, state taxes are generated on breeding fees, and 90 percent of that money comes from the huge Thoroughbred farms. From the pot of money, 80 percent goes back to incentive programs run by the Thoroughbred organizations, 13 percent goes to Standardbred harness racing incentives, the rest is divided among pleasure breeds and disciplines.

Why are Kentucky's Thoroughbred people so generous with their fellow horsemen? I'm told that in order to survive, they recognized they needed a statewide grassroots lobbying machine manned by horse folks -- 4-H, breed groups, trail clubs -- working the general public, the legislature and county officials.

A spokesperson from the Maryland Horse Breeders said they considered directing a portion of the slots purse funds to incentive programs that promote other breeds and disciplines. But they didn't proceed with it.

It is possible for all Maryland horsemen to sit down together and develop a KEEP here in Maryland. Passage of slots appears likely, but this goal can be pursued however slots fare in November. Insiders who support such a partnership do warn that it could prove tough if slots pass, and Thoroughbred people are asked to discuss diverting funds to a KEEP-style initiative. But there is no prohibition to doing so, and horse racing's survival will not require slots nearly so much as it will require a strong, allied horse industry in the years ahead.

David Turner is an ardent supporter of ensuring agricultural status for horse farms in Prince George's County. He is also a founding member of the Mid- Atlantic Saddlebreds and an active member of the Maryland Horse Council.

 

 

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