After a couple of years of ill-fated attempts, leaders of Maryland's thoroughbred and harness racing industries are hoping to get an off-track betting bill introduced and passed in the coming General Assembly.
Track owners, horsemen and virtually all other segments of the racing industry have banded together to form the Maryland Horse Coalition.
"The industry has been united behind an off-track betting bill before, but this is the first time legislation will actually be introduced with broad support and strongly pushed by the whole industry," said Alan Foreman, who represents thoroughbred and harness horsemen who are supporting the proposed measure.
The newly formed coalition will hold a news conference at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Maryland Communications Center to announce a unified and concerted drive to establish off-track betting sites around the state.
"Simply put, we are dead without OTB," said Joe De Francis, chief operating officer of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, where attendance and betting have declined recently. "We are not asking the legislature to take a leap of faith. OTB has already been successful in over a half-dozen racing states. Not only will OTB generate new jobs, but it's absolutely fundamental for the health of one of Maryland's largest industries."
The bill that industry leaders are pushing is virtually the same as proposed legislation that never made it out of committee in the General Assembly last year.
"Really, it's a simple bill, without a lot of sticky issues," said Richard Wilcke, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association, which also supports the bill.
Under the proposed legislation, the state racing commission would regulate the off-track betting sites. There has been no attempt to designate specific sites or limit the number of locations. However, no off-track betting parlor could be located within 25 miles of an existing track, unless approved by that track's management.
Officials hope that the OTB sites would emulate racing tele-theaters that have already been built in other states. Members of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, which oversee racing, will tour the Pimlico inter-track betting facility tomorrow to see firsthand how a racing card operates without live action.
"We are hopeful that the leadership [of the General Assembly] will introduce the legislation," Wilcke said. "In previous years, it wasn't the makeup of the bill, but other political problems, that held it up."
In previous years, Arabian racing legislation stymied OTB efforts. Last year, the uncertain status of the state's two harness tracks, which had been placed under bankruptcy protection by their previous owner, Mark Vogel, halted an OTB initiative.