Questions come a little bit late

Dan Rodricks

October 01, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Everyone wants a piece of Mark Vogel now -- the federal authorities, the state authorities, the newspapers, his creditors, the Maryland Racing Commission. Legislators are said to find Vogel's legal and financial problems "worrisome." Should Vogel's financial network start to unravel, worried legislators say, the Maryland harness racing industry could crumble.

But for all the people vying for a piece of the embattled Vogel, not one even bothered to sniff in his general direction when it counted -- by my figuring, about two years ago, when Vogel became the state's King Trot.

Now, Vogel faces a drug charge in Northern Virginia and a federal investigation into his alleged use of cocaine. A real estate partnership he controls in Prince George's County filed for bankruptcy protection last week. The feds seized his helicopter the other day. Vogel temporarily forfeited "operational and financial control" of his two harness tracks, Delmarva Downs in Ocean City and Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill.

The question facing the state is: If Vogel falls, does harness racing? (Which has been the question all along, except no one asked it.)

Vogel reportedly pledged revenue from Rosecroft as collateral on a real estate loan. The Racing Commission ordered and audit to find out how Vogel has been spending money generated by the track.

"I don't want to be a voice of doom, but I can't see anything but a worsening of these kinds of situations," said one state senator.

"If this ends up in bankruptcy, we really have no say in what happens to this track," said another.

And then we had a member of the racing commission pledging to take a hard look at the way Rosecroft and Delmarva operate. "From now on, I'm going to be looking under every rock," said Peter Bozick, a racing commissioner.

How very reassuring.

Of course, it might have made more sense to look into Vogel's rock collection back when it mattered. It might have made more sense for these lame legislators to have given up their free clubhouse passes and taken a look at Rosecroft's operations and Vogel's real estate ventures, whether the two were entwined and to what extent. Did, for instance, Vogel buy his $87,000 Jet Ranger helicopter out of track funds at a time when his finances were precarious?

The racing commission, covering its rear from attack, says that it started questioning Vogel's business practices a year ago, after examining annual audits of Rosecroft and Delmarva. But whatever concerns the commission had, it did not intervene, and I don't remember anyone in Annapolis calling for an investigation of Vogel's operations.

We can't fault the present commission entirely. Traditionally, Maryland racing moguls -- for the last few years, that meant only Mark Vogel and the late Frank DeFrancis -- were treated quite gently by the racing commission and the legislature, even when it became clear that they were being snookered.

Take as the most blatant example, the perfectly legal but ethically questionable DeFrancis-Vogel deal of 1988-89, a testament to arrogance if we've ever seen one.

At the time, DeFrancis owned the now-defunct Freestate Raceway, formerly Laurel Raceway, a harness track on U.S. Route 1 that came close to ruin under its previous owners.

Though DeFrancis owned Freestate, he was mostly interested in thoroughbred racing -- and getting harness racing out of the Baltimore-Howard County corridor.

So, he offered to transfer Freestate's 115 racing days to Rosecroft and Vogel for $7.5 million. That, of course, would have concentrated all harness racing in one man's hands. It would have left Maryland with two monopolies -- DeFrancis with virtually all of the thoroughbred dates at Pimlico and Laurel; Vogel with all the harness dates at Delmarva and Rosecroft.

The cutest part of the deal was this: If the racing commission did not approve, DeFrancis would keep Freestate dark for 115 days. That way, he could force the commission into doing things his way. It didn't matter that, under state law, the assignment of racing days belonged to the commission. DeFrancis and Vogel worked their little deal on the side, leaving the commission in the dark. The commission, unwilling to challenge Frank DeFrancis, approved the transfer. Mark Vogel ended up with a harness racing monopoly.

Now Vogel's personal, legal and financial problems threaten to create a harness racing disaster. There's got to be a lesson in here somewhere.

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