Off-track betting plan appears to be winner

December 10, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

In an unusual show of unity, the horse-racing industry has agreed on a legislative proposal for bringing off-track betting to Maryland.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer supports the concept, and proponents think OTB will finally win legislative approval after failing the past few years.

The proposal, which goes before two legislative committees this week, would allow the state racing commission to license several off-track facilities around the state.

Bettors watching oversized televisions in theater-like rooms could gamble on Thoroughbred and harness races broadcast live from tracks in and out of Maryland.

Industry representatives say the ailing racing business, which has suffered a slump in revenue this year, must attract more gamblers to survive.

"The competition is becoming more intense than ever," said Joseph De Francis, president of Pimlico and Laurel race courses.

"This next step forward is absolutely vital to our competing with other states."

This year, De Francis, principal owner of the state's two Thoroughbred tracks, and Fred Weisman, new owner of the Rosecroft and Delmarva harness tracks, are working together on the proposal.

Schaefer supports the concept of off-track wagering as long as the industry is united, according to his chief legislative aide, David S. Iannucci. Off-track betting has been proposed in Annapolis several times over the past few years but has always stumbled on political obstacles, including intramural squabbling within the racing industry.

Two years ago, Schaefer objected to a proposal to put off-track betting in a facility in downtown Baltimore, arguing that gambling would detract from the family atmosphere there. This year's proposal does not mention any possible sites, but proponents say they would not propose any facilities in the Inner Harbor area.

Last year, legislative leaders pre-empted any consideration of off-track proposals because of the legal and financial problems faced by Mark R. Vogel, former owner of the state's two harness tracks. Vogel recently sold the tracks to Weisman, a California businessman.

Several states, including New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, now allow off-track gambling. Supporters say the money spent by off-track gamblers allows tracks to increase purses. Higher purses attract better horses and jockeys, which in turn attract bigger crowds, De Francis said.

"Racetracks are competing intensely for athletes -- for horses and jockeys," De Francis said.

On Thursday, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, which oversee racing, will tour Pimlico Race Course's "Sports Palace," where gamblers can now place bets on races being run at Laurel Race Course and, occasionally, on big stakes races in other states.

"We thought it was a good idea to jointly go up and look at this Palace as a good example of what one of these OTB facilities might look like," said Senate Finance Chairman Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's. The industry's off-track proposal would not limit the number of off-track parlor licenses, although representatives have figured on no more than a half-dozen sites.

Proponents said they want to be careful not to hurt the state's four tracks with nearby off-track betting facilities. Under their proposal, no one could open a facility within 25 miles of a track without permission from the track's owners, according to Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist for the state's horse breeders.

The state's harness tracks, which are in southern Prince George's County and near Ocean City, would like to tap into the Baltimore market. One possibility would be to open Pimlico for nighttime wagering on harness races.

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