Off-Track Betting bill rounds first legislative turn in fine shape

December 05, 1990|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's horse racing industry unveiled an Off-Track Betting bill before a legislative subcommittee yesterday that it hopes will win passage during the 1991 General Assembly.

Members of the joint legislative committee voted to support the bill and the state's Department of Licensing and Regulation also expressed its support.

Key points of the bill, which is a far simpler version of an OTB bill that failed in 1989, are:

* Only four parlors are permitted statewide;

* Parlors must be located outside a 35-mile radius of an existing track (unless given special permission to locate closer by an existing track);

* Anyone can apply to operate a parlor, even the state;

* The state racing commission will oversee operation of the parlors;

* Betting pools between the tracks and parlors will be co-mingled.

This time around track operators are taking special care to distance themselves from OTB legislation, less it be perceived as just another windfall for wealthy track owners to line their pockets.

In fact, the bill doesn't refer to Off-Track Betting at all, but rather terms such as "Satellite Simulcast Wagering."

Instead of being proposed by track owners, the bill yesterday was introduced by members of the state racing commission and representatives from all segments of the racing industry -- breeders, horsemen, track employees, AmTote officials and then last of all, the track owners themselves. They presented a united front and testified that OTB is needed to increase the fan base, handle and purses.

The late Frank De Francis sought OTB because he felt surrounding states like Pennslyvania and Virginia were storming Maryland's borders with the threat of OTB facilities and would steal its fans.

Current track executive Marty Jacobs takes a more soft-sell approach. "This year our total handle will only increase 2, maybe 2 1/2 percent," he said. "We are used to such increases as 15 or 20 percent. We have reached a plateau in our business despite all the positive contributions from our marketing and promotional efforts. We need to expand our market to attract new fans and the sattelite centers are the way to do it.

"Perceived threats from Pennsylvania and New Jersey are now reality. Pennsylvania has gotten the jump on us and already has existing OTB parlors. It's not that they are located near our borders and are taking our fans. But OTB will increase their purses and keep or lure the better horses to their tracks. That's where the competition is -- not for fans, but for horses. We have to have the better horses to have quality racing. New Jersey now has approved Sunday racing and casino gambling will be allowed at their tracks. So that will also improve their purse structure and help them keep and attract quality horses. That's why we need to increase our handle. We have to keep our purse structure high to maintain quality racing."

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