The Maryland Standardbred Breeders' Association is pulling out all the stops to ensure that its interests are being protected during off-track betting negotiations in Annapolis.
The organization, representing about 200 harness breeders, voted Tuesday night in an emergency session to spend its entire treasury to hire high-profile lobbyist Bruce Bereano to address their concerns before the General Assembly.
A bill to legalize OTB parlors in the state was introduced in the state Senate several weeks ago and is now being debated in the Senate Finance Committee.
The leader of the association says the move does not mean that the harness breeders are breaking ranks with the Maryland Horse Coalition, which was formed by all segments of the state's racing industry to present a unified OTB voice in Annapolis. But it certainly indicates some differences of opinion.
The harness breeders want two changes to the current bill:
* An increase in the area around each track in which the track or horsemen and breeders racing there could veto construction of a parlor. The MSBA wants the current 25-mile radius increased to 35 miles. The larger radius would be fairer to existing harness tracks, the breeders say.
* Each parlor must be required to simulcast both harness and thoroughbred races. In the current bill, a parlor could simulcast either or both. Harness racing would be at a disadvantage, the breeders add, if parlors in the better locations elected to take just thoroughbred races.
Ed Leager, a leading harness breeder and MSBA board member, said the group voted 10-4 "to buck our own president [Dr. William Riddle] because we want these safeguards."
The harness breeders now join a so-called "rump" group of harness horsemen, called the Maryland Standardbred Horsemen's Association, in voicing concerns with the OTB bill. Cloverleaf, the official Standardbred horsemen's organization, and the management of the state's two harness tracks, Rosecroft and Delmarva, have supported the Coalition or "industry" bill.
Dr. Riddle said the situation could have been avoided if the Coalition had consulted the harness breeders early on. "But the Standardbred breeders have had two months to study and digest these issues and the majority of the board feels these particular points need to be fine-tuned," Riddle said.
"These issues are relatively minor, and don't affect the overall picture of the bill, which we all support."
Riddle, who also owns thoroughbreds, said he opposed the board's action because "I felt the steering committee [of the Coalition] should be contacted first to insure that the overall OTB bill would not be injured. And I thought by going to them first, and by possibly ironing out the changes, we could save money."
But Riddle said he understands the position of the harness breeders. He said that in recent years harness horsemen have lost a major track, Freestate, and seen Mark Vogel, the man who at the time owned the other major track, Rosecroft, become embroiled in drug and financial problems. They have also seen their purses dwindle by 33 percent.
"They are pleased with the new owners of Rosecroft [Colt Enterprises], but they are still leery," he said. "All they want is parity in this OTB bill with the thoroughbreds. If you had seen the same situation on the thoroughbred side -- if Pimlico, for example, was shut down and Laurel had gone bankrupt -- then thoroughbred horsemen would know how the harness people feel."
Riddle added "harness horsemen are very much concerned with this legislation, and the future of their industry. The racetracks and thoroughbred breeders each have a lobbyist representing them. The harness breeders also felt they needed professional assistance."