Frank Keegan: Slots blockers make Maryland a sure loser

Opinion,Frank Keegan

What are the odds that Maryland horsemen who led the attack on legal slot machines 60 years ago would end up wanting them back?

Apparently pretty good, as in a sure thing.

Bill Dixon, owner of Mz. Zill Bear, the only four-time Maryland Million winner, said so as he watched thoroughbreds thunder around Laurel Park on Saturday during the 20th running.

"The irony is the horsemen killed the slots," Dixon said, leaning forward across The Baltimore Examiner VIP table, jabbing his index finger at his companion, Billy Christmas, a legendary Maryland racehorse trainer.

"Billy Christmas will tell you," Dixon said. "He led the fight to kill slots."

Christmas concurred. "It was after the war. Horsemen thought slots were taking money away from the tracks." Now they are working to legalize them so more bettors will come to Laurel and Pimlico.

As usual and unsurprisingly, the big contention is over how to split the take. Yet those opposed to slots ? and gambling in general ? field great arguments. Gambling is bad. The fact is gambling probably is older than government, more ancient than science and religion, maybe even than art. Our species has been calculating odds, consciously or subconsciously, for a long, long time.

And we?ve been wagering on just about anything that moves, whether a thousand pounds of magnificent horseflesh or electrons in a modern slot.

Sadly for those opposed to gambling, it?s here forever. Now, in America, we are in one of our legal phases. Gambling is open. We?ll lurch back into a repressive, neo-Calvinist phase at some point, perhaps, and gambling will become an illegal, hidden vice again.

Until then, any state that does not get in on it is a loser. Sure, study after study proves legal gambling costs government in social services far more than all revenue generated by fees and taxes.

Anyone who says legal gambling is a form of economic development is a cannibal inviting himself to a one-man banquet.

But Maryland soon will be surrounded by slots. We can suffer all of the downside with none of the benefit. That is a sure loser. Or we can take a chance on getting something out of it.

We need slots, and we need them where they will generate the greatest public good for the greatest number.

That?s Laurel Park and Pimlico. These tracks are more to Maryland than mere gambling venues. They are woven into our heritage. American horse racing started here.

They face increased competition from other ? tacky ? forms of gambling. Face it. In the hierarchy of gambling, thoroughbred racing is the exciting, living sport of kings. Slots are, well, mindless, boring dead machines. You cannot get any greater thrill for $2 than wagering on fine horses and watching them fiercely contend the distance. The event itself is a thing of beauty, win or lose.

The problem with horse racing is it?s an expensive sport. It takes a lot of money to feed and train and board a horse. Slot machines provide lots of revenue without the maintenance.

"I don?t think slots are any long-term answer," Christmas said. "But we have them all around us. They?re a quick fix, not a permanent fix." He said "it was the owners of Laurel and Pimlico who put up the money to get ?em stopped" in the ?40s.

Now the tracks need them back. Maybe we can?t figure the odds on that happening this year.

But we can calculate one ancient sure bet: Everything that goes around, comes around.

Frank Keegan is editor of The Baltimore Examiner. He can be reached at
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