Racing industry ready to dig in

January 15, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

The battle lines are being drawn in Annapolis between the horse racing and gaming industries in response to the casino operators' first full-blown effort to invade Maryland.

No bills to allow riverboat or land-based casinos have been introduced in the General Assembly, "but rest assured they're coming," said Alan Rifkin, lobbyist for Laurel/Pimlico.

Basically, Rifkin said, it comes down to a fight for survival of the $1 billion, 250-year-old Maryland horse racing industry -- which provides 20,000 jobs and keeps more than 900 horse farms in operation -- against a threatened influx of out-of-state casino operators from New Jersey and Nevada, Rifkin said.

"[The casino interests] dangle a carrot in front of the legislature and say they can provide the state with a hypothetical amount of needed nontax revenue when people are reluctant to pass new taxes," he said. "But what happens to the other industries that are affected, not only racing, but also the lottery and the restaurant, hotel and bar businesses? Will casinos bring about a net positive or produce a substantial negative impact? Those are the issues that need to be addressed."

The horse racing industry's position, espoused by a unified coalition of thoroughbred and harness track operators and horsemen in the state, is clear, said Laurel/Pimlico owner Joe De Francis: "We're not opposed to the casinos in concept, but we are unalterably opposed to them when they operate in competition with horse racing."

In several areas of the country, attendance and handle at the tracks drop as much as 20 percent when they operate in competition with casinos. To have peaceful coexistence, the tracks need to operate casinos in their plants or receive part of the proceeds from the gaming establishments.

For the past couple of years, casino operators have been testing the waters in Maryland. Bills to introduce riverboat casinos have died in committee in the past two sessions, but this year is different.

"The casino industry is investing tremendous amounts of money and personnel in Annapolis and have already hired a number of high-profile lobbyists to take their case to the legislators," Rifkin said. "It's clear they have targeted the Mid-Atlantic region -- Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia -- as a desirable place to do business."

The Maryland Horse Coalition has hired Jay Schwartz as its main spokesman and four other lobbyists -- Rifkin, representing the thoroughbred tracks; Bob Enten, the thoroughbred horsemen; Dennis McCoy, the thoroughbred breeders; and Franklin Goldstein, the harness horsemen -- are also working in Annapolis on behalf of racing.

But individual casinos have hired at least five lobbyists, Rifkin said. "And in Virginia, I'm told there are as many as 40 to 50 lobbyists registered on behalf of casino operators," he said. "It's a real eye-opener and a very significant issue, one that can't be taken lightly in either state."

George Mannas, who represented Maryland thoroughbred horsemen for eight years in Annapolis and now represents the Harrah's casino group, said his client, "at least wants to sit down and talk with the horse racing industry representatives. We believe that both racing and casinos can co-exist and we want to start a dialogue."

Once a bill is introduced later in the session to permit the licensing of casinos in Maryland, Mannas said, "then it has to be decided what kind of regulations and guidelines are going to be placed on them."

He added that it's imperative that Maryland lawmakers address the casino gambling issue since Pennsylvania is about to permit gaming and Delaware already has passed a bill to allow Delaware Park to install slot machines at the track this year. "If not, then the state is going to lose gambling dollars," he said.

So long, D.C. International?

At least one of the proposals by Laurel/Pimlico management to horsemen is to abolish the 1995 Turf Festival, including the Washington, D.C., International, for one year, and put that money -- about $1.1 million now allocated for stakes -- into purses for overnight or daily rank-and-file races.

Horsemen have long been opposed to the Turf Festival, which was instituted to beef up the International when Frank De Francis and Bob and Tom Manfuso ran Laurel, thinking that it is an extravagance that doesn't generate a large enough betting handle to pay for its purses.

What to do with the International itself has been a subject of debate for the past 20 years once the stakes lost its uniqueness with the advent of numerous other international races and the Breeders' Cup.

However, the stakes has become identified as a signature Laurel event and last year generated the third-largest daily handle behind the Preakness and Maryland Million.

Does the race's prestige make up for its lack of economic benefits, or has its time passed?

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