FORT WASHINGTON -- Tickets whirred from mutuel machines at Rosecroft Raceway last night. Pacers paced, trotters trotted, and drivers returned soaked and dirty after touring the sloppy oval.
All in all, it was business as usual.
Fans, employees and horsemen seemed largely unfazed by recent events that have put the harness track in receivership. They expressed apprehension -- but satisfaction -- with an agreement allowing the Maryland harness racing schedule to continue uninterrupted.
Mark Vogel, the track's owner, filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law Thursday. Bankruptcy judge James Schneider placed Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs, which Vogel also owns, under the control of trustee Jim Murphy. Murphy then resigned as the track's president and general manager to avoid a conflict of interest.
Murphy, addressing horsemen and track employees before last night's 1991 opening program, made assurances that the agreement is in "everyone's best interest" and in no way jeopardizes the sport's immediate future.
"Don't let the word 'bankruptcy' scare you," he told them.
Later, Murphy said the filing "bought Mark some time. Whether the extra time does him any good remains to be seen."
Under the agreement, First National Bank of Maryland -- which holds a delinquent $10.9 million loan on the tracks -- will not present a bankruptcy plan to Schneider for 120 days. During that time, Vogel can seek refinancing or equity partners, or he can sell, which most insiders view as the most likely scenario. If nothing occurs during the 120-day period, the tracks' future could be decided by the court.
Whatever happens, harness racing appears safe for the foreseeable future. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Secretary of Licensing and Regulation William A. Fogle Jr. and state racing officials met with representatives of First National Bank of Maryland Wednesday and urged them to find a way to allow Rosecroft to open under court supervision.
"We needed to do whatever had to be done to have racing open tonight and find someone acceptable to the racing commission," Curran said yesterday. He said the alternative would have been for the state to file for a receiver.
Murphy described the intervention by Schaefer and Curran as "positive" because "it tells of their commitment and interest in keeping this industry healthy."
A track operator's license was issued yesterday to Murphy, as trustee, by the Department of Licensing and Regulation.
Murphy said that during his trusteeship, he is "determined to see that everything possible is done to meet our obligations. Current obligations will be paid right away, and past obligations will be met as quickly as possible."
A mutuel clerk who wished to remain anonymous said last night he was "incredulous" concerning the recent events. "I thought the state should have forced his [Vogel's] hand a long time ago and made him divest. He's been taking money out of here for the last year."
Another employee said recent developments had been "kind of scary," but said her job seemed sufficiently secure. Others expressed similar sentiments.
Fans seemed more interested in what is always a primary interest for them: "Cashing a ticket," said one.
Larry Johnson of Clinton said he attends Rosecroft about twice a month. "Fans hate to see it [the recent problems] because it can hurt business," he said. "I'd say most people here wouldn't want to see it close."
Racing secretary Billy Perkins said recent events were a factor in hindering his ability to fill races, citing a significant number of out-of-state horsemen as notable absentees. "But once tonight proves it's a 'go,' then I think I'll get them back," he said.
Last night's program was the first conducted at Rosecroft since the track took a scheduled break after its Dec. 22 program. In the interim, First National initiated foreclosure proceedings after Vogel announced he did not want to sell the tracks despite his considerable financial troubles.
In November, Vogel pleaded guilty in Virginia to a cocaine possession charge. He later entered into an agreement with the Maryland Racing Commission that gave operational control of the tracks to Murphy.
The betting handle was down midway through last night's program, and is expected to be down tonight; the trends may be attributable to poor weather and today's Washington Redskins game, respectively, combined with possible negative effects from the recent problems.