Troubled Track Regulars hope harnessed Vogel won't lead Rosecroft to finish line

September 24, 1990|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

Danny Murray looks at the cataclysmic events showering down on the head of real estate and racing entrepreneur Mark Vogel in the last 10 days, and sees the possibility of his own life crumbling.

Murray's future -- and that of several thousand other owners, trainers, drivers, breeders and employees of the state's harness racing industry -- is tied in to the monopolistic control Vogel has asserted over an industry said to generate about $300 million in annual income.

Within a short period of time, the 42-year-old developer has brought this equine gambling monolith to the brink of ruin. Vogel faces drug charges and newspaper reports of financial impropriety as well as possible bankruptcies and foreclosures in his real estate empire.

Vogel's myriad of troubles have already forced the state racing commission, in an agreement expected to be signed today, to take him out of daily operational control of Rosecroft Raceway, one of the state's two trotting tracks that he owns. The other is Delmarva Downs located near Ocean City, and it is closed for the season.

However, Rosecroft, a five-eighths mile track located in Oxon Hill in southeastern Prince George's County, is open and at 6:30 Saturday evening Danny Murray is looking pretty dapper.

He is dressed in his tux, and starts to greet, and seat, the several hundred fans who have come for dinner, and to bet the horses, that night.

Murray is assistant maitre d'. He once personally served Frank De Francis his trackside dinners when the late racing magnate owned Freestate Raceway, the now defunct harness track in Laurel.

But working as a captain in the dining room is just one of two jobs Murray holds down at the track. He also trains an 11-horse stable, and ranks seventh among Rosecroft's list of top 10 trainers. His years of service to De Francis worked out well. He now trains a horse for Joe De Francis, the late track owner's son.

This year Murray's horses have started 86 times at Rosecroft, won 19 races and placed in the money more than 50 percent of the time.

But purses are so much lower in the harness end of the game that even a leading trainer such as Murray finds it necessary to hold down two jobs. In the richer, high-rolling life at the thoroughbred tracks, it would be almost impossible to imagine a leading trainer like King Leatherbury also serving lunch in the dining room.

But, it's something Murray takes in stride, even when track announcer and handicapper Robin Burns refers to him as "The Captain" on the in-house monitor when talking about Murray's horses.

Tonight the track is more crowded than usual, perhaps, a waiter notes wryly, because of all the publicity the Vogel scandal has generated. At any rate, Murray not only handles his restaurant duties with finesse, but also keeps an eye on the track. One of the stars of his stable, Sayitain'tsopete, would go on to finish fourth as the second choice in the ninth race.

On nights he's not working in the restaurant, Murray oversees preparation for the horses himself. On a night like tonight, he leaves the chores up to an assistant.

"It's aggravating, but something I've got to live with," he said. "My owners seem to understand. This is the best year I've ever had training, but who knows, it might be a fluke. I've got eight to nine years of seniority working in the dining room, and that's something I can't afford to give up."

But personal career gains could mean nothing if the track goes out of business.

"I've invested 12 years of my life in getting to where I've gotten this year," Murray said. "I've always dreamed of being on the leading trainers list. It's 12 years I've invested in what's already considered a shaky business. But now, I see my whole career jeopardized by something I have absolutely no control over.

"Horsemen are a transient society, and we could go on to other tracks in other states. But I like Maryland and most of my owners live here. I'd lose all of my owners if this track shut down.

"It is a real mess," Murray said. "If the state shuts Vogel down, then everyone will blame the state for killing the industry. If Vogel goes under, then everyone blames Vogel for putting us out of business. No matter what happens, everybody loses.

"There's nothing else to do, though, but to ride out the ship, and see what happens."

Vogel's problems make for an ongoing story laced with drugs, raft, fraud, political intrigue -- all the usual sordid stuff of the modern morality tale -- that adds up to one of the spiciest -- and sorriest -- stories in the state's 300-year-old horse racing history.

If Vogel is convicted of cocaine possession charges in Virginia, where it is considered a federal felony, the racing commission probably will be forced to revoke his license. Even if this doesn't come about, his financial wheeling and dealing with the track's assets could prompt state officials to yank Rosecroft's racing days.

But since Vogel owns the only tracks, how can he be forced to sell them? If they were put on the market, who would come forward and buy out Vogel's interests? Does this mean the end of harness racing in the state?

In the words of such industry insiders as Baltimore prosecutor jTC Morty Rosen: "This is a very, very serious situation with so many ramifications that not only could it wreck the harness industry, but have a ripple effect on the thoroughbred industry as well."

For Rosecroft's publicity director, Jerry Connors, it means taking a literary turn. "I like to quote [Joseph] Conrad in a situation like this," Connors quipped. "He wrote, 'In the jungle, above all else, one must remain calm.' "

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