Will Pimlico Lose the Preakness?

Beyond the grand spectacle of Saturday's Preakness Stakes, a political squabble looms over historic Pimlico. The track's owners may move the race if state officials refuse to let them install slot machines. Mark Steiner, host of a talk show on NPR station WYPR, tells Jennifer Ludden about the controversy.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

At today's 130th annual running of the Preakness Stakes, Afleet Alex, one of the favorites, overcame a stumble, then pulled ahead to win the race. Scrappy T finished second; Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo came in third. The Preakness is the second event in horse racing's Triple Crown. It's run at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore and it's the only day that track makes money; at least that's what the owners say. The fans who attended the Preakness found themselves in the midst of a political battle over racetracks and slot machines. The Maryland Legislature has been fighting over whether to legalize slot machines at the racetracks. This year again, elected officials said no to slots, but the Magna Corporation, which owns Pimlico, says it needs slots to stay profitable. To talk about all this, we called up Marc Steiner. He hosts "The Marc Steiner Show" on member station WYPR in Baltimore. We spoke before the race.

Marylanders have been reading a lot in the local press this year about the horse racing industry. Tell us what's going on.

MARC STEINER (Host, "The Marc Steiner Show"): Well, right now there's--the horse racing industry, the tracks in particular, are all wrapped up in the slots debate in Maryland. You know, when Magna first bought Pimlico, which is where they run the Preakness, they said, `Well, we don't need slots. That's not why we're buying the tracks.' But now they're saying, `We need slots or we'll move the Preakness.' So...

LUDDEN: They need slots to make a profit because they only...

STEINER: The need slots to make a profit, though I doubt whether they're really going to move--I'm not one of those who thinks they're actually going to move the Preakness. It's the only day they make any money, so I'm not sure why they would move that particular day--that race.

LUDDEN: Well, the Baltimore Sun on Friday had a big front-page spread saying a--tough odds for Pimlico. You believe that?

STEINER: They've had this threat for years. Every year they threaten to close it down or move it because they don't make enough money at the track, which is why all of us kind of take a little jaundiced view of this and just wait and see.

LUDDEN: Well, the Preakness is the big day for Pimlico, the racetrack. What does Pimlico mean for the city of Baltimore?

STEINER: I mean, Preakness is Baltimore. It's like crab cakes. You know, I mean, it's like the Orioles. It's just part of the soul of Maryland and the community because it's a huge race and it's become a major public event, not just for the elite anymore, so it means a lot of money for Baltimore city. So those things are important and Pimlico has been around forever as a racetrack. Economically it would hurt the city and it would emotionally devastate, I think, the area if Pimlico closed or the Preakness left. I think it would be a huge deal.

LUDDEN: You said that the horse racing industry isn't what it used to be. I mean, is part of the problem here that it's just not financially viable anymore?

STEINER: It may not be. I mean, in 1985, they gave the horse racing industry a $20 million break by cutting taxes on bets at the track, and that didn't work either. You know, slots were at first tied to education and that became a real battle--this Slots for Tots thing that became a battle in the state.

LUDDEN: Slots for Tots would have given money to education programs.

STEINER: Correct. And now all of a sudden it's being tied to the horse racing industry and the Preakness. You know, now even the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, who's going to run for governor, is coming out tepidly for slots and his Democratic opponent in the primary is totally opposed to slots. So it's clearly going to be an issue. And it's the only thing that Governor Ehrlich seems to have fought for vociferously in his years as governor--has been slots.

LUDDEN: And are these guys going to...

STEINER: ...(Unintelligible) win it.

LUDDEN: Are these guys going to be at the Preakness?

STEINER: They'll all be at the Preakness. Politicians would never miss the Preakness.

LUDDEN: Marc Steiner hosts "The Marc Steiner Show" on WYPR and he joined us from there in Baltimore.

Thank you.

STEINER: My pleasure. Thank you.

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