Slot to Trot: Refenendum gives Maryland horseplayers new hope for their sport. Credit: Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club

Thanksgiving hasn’t always meant only football. It used to mean horse racing, too. For some folks, it still means horse racing.

Nearly 6,000 people showed up at Laurel Park for the holiday card this year, lured by either racing tradition or all the free doughnuts, free coffee, and free pie.

Eliot Gunner, an Arlingtonian who grew up with racing at Massachusetts tracks, was among them.

“Thanksgiving always brings in a big crowd, and this year it’s a very big crowd,” says Gunner, a railbird who’s been to a Maryland track every Thanksgiving, and essentially every weekend, since moving to the D.C. area in the 1980s. “A lot of them I haven’t seen here before. And if I

don’t recognize them, they’re just here for the holiday.”

Thanksgiving cards are as traditional as anything in racing, a sport that looks backward like no other.

Local newspaper archives show that the St. Asaph racetrack, a circuit in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, had the best Thanksgiving racing around here way back in the 1890s, with the stiffest competition coming from a track on Benning Road NE.

Thanksgiving used to regularly give Maryland racing its biggest day of the fall meet. On Turkey Day 1965, for instance, the Dixie Handicap attracted 18 entrants to Pimlico for the eighth-oldest stakes race in the country. That’s the size of a Kentucky Derby field, and about three times as big as a typical race in Maryland these days.

It’s not only the size of the fields that has shrunk around here. Though Thanksgiving remains on the schedule, total racing days are way down. In 1986, for example, there were 286 racing days in Maryland. This year, assuming no more weather cancellations, there will be just 164.

Those numbers are just one reason that Laurel Park, much like the entire sport, often seems to have only a past.

I used to work at the track in the 1990s, when I covered Maryland racing. The place was a time machine then, and it still is. Its retro ambiance is the result of inertia and a lack of money, not design.

Just one example of retroness among thousands: The elevator to the Laurel Park press box is manual, meaning it requires an elevator operator to close a cage and rotate a lever to get you upstairs or down.

This mode of transport went out of style about the same time as the steamboat. But the geezerly elevator, operator and all, blends right in at the racetrack.

The press box on the top floor of the track compound reeks of the past, too. There are huge piles of yellowed and ancient Racing Forms stacked on top of tables. Beneath these same tables are piles of metal film canisters, holding miles of footage from Laurel Park’s glory days.

The stash would be a gold mine for a racing historian, since many of the containers are labeled “DC International.” That was a premier turf stakes race held here from 1952 to 1994 that every year attracted crowds of about 40,000 and the top racing talent in the world. The International fields boasted hall-of-fame horses like Kelso; jockeys like Lester Piggott, Eddie Arcaro, and Steve Cauthen; and trainers including Bill Mott and Woody Stephens. There’s also a chance the unkempt footage pile contains shots of Secretariat, the Babe Ruth of horses, who as a pre-iconic two-year-old won the Laurel Futurity here in October 1972.

But even if Maryland racing ain’t what it was, those still in the game found themselves looking forward a little more this Thanksgiving.

This new outlook all comes from Election Day, when an overwhelming majority of Maryland voters checked “Yes” on Question 2, a referendum to allow as many as 15,000 slot machines at up to five locations in the state.

That result came after what to the racing element seems like a lifetime of lobbying. Though purses in the state have been hurting for years, one racing group, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, took $400,000 out of the purse fund and put it toward the slots lobbying effort.

During the campaign, thoroughbred racing analysts claimed that within four years the new gambling revenues would add as much as $60 million to racing purses at state tracks.

But the positive impact that slots could have on the racing industry had never swayed voters before. So this time around, despite all the racing dollars involved in the campaign, the pro slots faction downplayed horses as much as possible. There were plenty of posters and bumper stickers left over from the slots referendum still at the track on Thanksgiving Day, but they featured pictures of schoolbooks and apples over slogans such as “Fund Maryland Education, Slots Yes.”

In the end, the vote wasn’t even close: Slots won 59–41, with every county in

the state approving the installation of one-arm bandits.

The racing folks’ war over slots isn’t yet won, however. The five slots licenses won’t be granted until August. And while everybody in the horse crowd expects that at least one of the two biggest tracks in the state, Laurel Park and Pimlico, will land a license, these are folks who remember what happened to Barbaro at Pimlico—they know there’s no such thing as a sure thing in racing.

Laurel Park will be vying for the slots license reserved for an applicant in Anne Arundel County. There are rumors that Peter Angelos, owner of the Orioles and at one time as politically connected as anybody in the state, might try to acquire land in the county to launch a competing bid. Laurel Park and Angelos can’t both get that license.

“Everybody expects us to be all hip-hip-hooray now, just because slots passed,” says Mike Gathagan, spokesperson for the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Laurel Park and Pimlico. “But we’re just past step one, with the vote. There’s a lot of work still.”

If Laurel Park is indeed named one of the slots compounds next summer, Gathagan says, it will have the machines “up and running” at the track in nine months.

Hardcore racing fans, like Gunner, don’t give a rip about having slots at Laurel Park, unless that’s the only way to keep their favorite pastime alive in the state. Gunner says he’ll be back at the track next Thanksgiving as long as there’s racing, even without slots—or free doughnuts, coffee, and pie.

“Sometimes, the free pie can be expensive,” he said, three pieces into a giveaway apple confection and counting his gambling losses for the holiday. “This year, it cost me about $60.”