ANNAPOLIS, Md. - With the 132nd Preakness Stakes days away, Gov. Martin O'Malley reiterated yesterday that he believes Maryland will eventually lose the Triple Crown race if slot machines are not legalized in the state.

O'Malley has supported allowing a limited number of slot machines to save the horse-racing industry in Maryland since he was mayor of Baltimore. He said the state stands to lose 17,000 racing jobs and horse-related open space if it doesn't legalize slot machines.

O'Malley said he has long believed horse racing will be lost if "we continue to insist that racing in Maryland has to compete on the unlevel playing field as it does." He said Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia allow slots at their tracks to build bigger purses.

"So I'm in favor of a limited number of slots at the track, preferably for the purpose of keeping those racing jobs and that open space and the Preakness in Maryland," O'Malley said. "And I believe that all of us share the goal of keeping Maryland a first-tier racing state and we need to find common ground that allows us to do that."

Measures to legalize slot machine gambling stalled during the administration of former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican and ardent slots supporter.

O'Malley, a Democrat, didn't want to take on a serious slots debate this last legislative session, when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller introduced a bill.

House Speaker Michael Busch said during an interview with reporters yesterday that his position on slot machine gambling hasn't changed significantly - that he still has "a lot of trepidation" about legalizing slots, but is open to discussions.

Busch has voiced wariness at using revenue from slot machines to balance the state budget, and also argues against putting them in mostly poor communities.

O'Malley hasn't been very specific about what he means by "limited." Busch said raising $50 million to $60 million to support horse racing in Maryland wouldn't require more than 1,500 slot machines statewide.

That's far shy of more than 15,000 proposed by Miller this year at seven locations around the state, including four horse tracks. *