Commentary

Hard to imagine

Updated: May 24, 2009, 5:28 PM ET
By Paul Moran | Special to ESPN.com

Though news organizations in Maryland and Washington, D.C. have focused a great deal of attention this month on the ominous issues that face the racing industry in the state in which the second jewel of the Triple Crown has been run for the last 134 years it is difficult to envision a time when the Preakness is run at another venue.

Old Hilltop is the place where Seabiscuit beat War Admiral. The legends have all walked this ground; the immortals have made it a blur beneath their hooves.

The state's political class for far too long resisted pleas for legislation that would legalize alternative forms of gambling until Pimlico and Laurel Park were methodically surrounded by states that facilitated slot machines or other similar devices. Delaware was first, then West Virginia and Pennsylvania. This political class has crippled racing and endangers a once-robust breeding community that is as much part of the state fabric as the blue crab and the Preakness.

Maryland officials are now collectively aghast at the prospect of losing the Preakness in the process of Magna Entertainment's larger interstate bankruptcy. But even if successful in keeping the race at time-worn, frayed and faded Pimlico, it may be too late. In a horse race, the last move will at times prove best. This is never true in business.

Already surrounded by states far ahead in the move to provide racetrack operators and government with new streams of revenue, Maryland, which has yet to plug in a slot machine, finds that the stakes have been raised. If slot machines are popular with many gamblers, sports betting -- prohibited in most states by federal law -- has an even wider appeal that has made wealthy generations of bookmakers.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell pushed aggressively to legalize Las Vegas-style sports betting at the state's three racetracks, two of which are harness tracks. Delaware was one of four states grandfathered when the federal government outlawed sports betting in the other 46 states. Both houses of the legislature passed the bill in May despite objections from both NFL and NCAA. Markell signed it immediately.

The structure of sports betting in Delaware -- straight betting against a point spread or parlays -- has yet to be determined but officials at Delaware Park, one of the three racetrack/slots casinos in the state support the Las Vegas approach, which adds yet another layer of competition for gamblers in the Mid-Atlantic just north of the stretch turn at Pimlico, a short drive from Maryland's horse farms, many for sale.

The depth of nearby gambling alternatives, including Atlantic City, has isolated Maryland. Slot machines may be insufficient to make a meaningful difference at the bottom line of the racetracks operated by the Maryland Jockey Club which faces an uncertain future. Surely, the business of racing in Maryland is about to change radically but can certainly be preserved in some form. A boutique meeting ending with the Preakness at a state-owned, not-for-profit Pimlico has been suggested and not dismissed.

It is not possible to move the Preakness out of Maryland without changing dramatically the Triple Crown series itself. There is a certain order to the incremental eastward flow -- Louisville to Baltimore to New York -- and though Pimlico has never been what might be considered a showplace, its ragamuffin image has over the years become part of the charm.

A Triple Crown race at the local track is a part of a city's identity, culture and tradition, none of which are movable. Baltimore is joined at the hip to the Preakness no less so than Louisville is conjoined with the Derby. Bourbon in one town, crab cakes in the other.

There is no acceptable alternative. Philadelphia? Slot machines have revived the racing in Pennsylvania but the facility is almost completely focused on slot machines nowadays. Arlington Park? The synthetic surface would make that a controversial destination. Monmouth Park? That's a thought. Hopefully one it will not be necessary to consider seriously.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.

• Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award among several other industry honors. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby.
• You can email him at pmoran1686@aol.com

ALSO SEE