Tracks await slots decisions

August 21, 2007 6:13 AM
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Decisions due within the next few weeks will determine the future of horse tracks from New York to Maryland.

Whether the three major tracks operated by the New York Racing Association (NYRA) will have slot machines and which group will operate them should be known by the end of the month.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has indicated he will choose among the three major bidders for the 20-year license to operate Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks. He’ll also identify which tracks will be granted licenses to add slots to their gaming menus.

Among the bidders are the partnership of Churchill Downs Inc. (CHDN) and Magna Entertainment Corp. (MECA); a development group in partnership with casino mogul Steve Wynn, and the current franchise holder, NYRA.

In New Jersey, the spotlight must shine soon on the Meadowlands racetrack, located just 12 minutes from the heart of New York City.

Through strong lobbying on the part of the Atlantic City casinos, the Meadowlands, once the premiere harness racing facility in North America, was prohibited from having slot machines. However legislative action, which expires at the end of the calendar year, forces the casinos to pay into a fund to subsidize racing purses.

Without slots, or at least, the continuation of the subsidy program, the track, owned by the state of New Jersey, could be forced to close.

And in Maryland, where racing is in decline because of competition from Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia where slot machines have boosted racing purses, the new governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, is making a strong, and possibly final pitch, to get track slot machine legislation passed. But the opposition if formidable.

Just last week, the state’ comptroller, Peter Franchot, also a Democrat, called the slots efforts a "propaganda campaign."

The Republican legislators, who have consistently opposed the expansion of gambling, has suggested that if slots are approved it should be on the basis on charging license fees up to $150 million with the slot operations put up for bid.

Adding fuel to the opposition was recent missive from both the political and business leaders in Ocean City, where a harness track now operates, in which they expressed opposition not just in their resort town but anywhere in Maryland.

"We don’t need slots in Maryland," they strongly stated in their position paper.