The Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, Inc., an organization of harness horsemen, is close to completing a deal to purchase Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways, according to a member of the group's board of directors.
Officials of the association, which has approximately 1,200 members that are licensed owners and trainers of standardbred horses in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, had no comment yesterday other than to say they are working with the tracks' owner, Colt Enterprises, "on current issues affecting Rosecroft/Delmarva and on Colt's future plans," said counsel Alan Foreman.
Cloverleaf's board is comprised of 32 members and has known of the discussions with Colt for a couple of months, the board member said, although it pledged to keep the negotiations secret.
Rosecroft and Delmarva have been on the market for nearly two years, but the sale became a matter of priority after the death of Colt's owner, Fred Weisman, in September 1994.
If the deal is consummated, Cloverleaf would become the first horsemen's group in the country to own and operate a racetrack.
"It sounds like United Airlines to me," said owner-driver Russ Williams Jr., referring to the buyout last year of a major airline by its employees.
Williams, vice president of Hanover Shoe Farms in Hanover, Pa., is a member of a group called Top Speed Entertainment that has also been negotiating to buy Rosecroft and Delmarva since 1993.
Williams said yesterday he is aware of Cloverleaf's efforts, and supports a horsemen-oriented operating group. "In the old days, things like this weren't done, because t he tracks made a lot of money," he said.
However, Colt lost money in each of the first two years, 1992 and '93, that it operated the facilities and is expected to lose more than $1 million in 1994, according to a track official, who said the annual report for last year has not yet been filed.
Colt purchased Rosecroft, located in the Washington suburb of Oxon Hill, and Delmarva, near Ocean City, after their former owner, Mark Vogel, filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991. The purchase price was a reported $18.5 million.
Because of Colt's heavy debt service and the tracks' losses, buyers have been reluctant to come forward, sources say.
"There is also the feeling, since Mr. Weisman's death, that everything is in limbo," remarked Maryland racing commissioner Allan Levey. "Colt has not been putting any money into the track in the way of improvements or marketing and now they want to sell it badly. I'm confident there will be a signed [sales] contract within the next week."
Other sources say Colt has fallen behind in paying its bills, heightening horsemen's fears that the tracks could again be placed into bankruptcy, although track officials deny it.
If Cloverleaf, a nonprofit group, buys the tracks, it probably would form a subsidiary and appoint an independent board of directors to operate them. The organization would guarantee operation of the tracks by pledging the equity in its purse account.
It might not be an ideal situation, and concessions on purses might have to be made, but horsemen would be in total control of their destiny, said an industry official.
The most recent racing-related comparison occurred after the ownership of Longacres Park near Seattle ceased operation in the early 1990s. Horsemen there formed an organization that leased the facilities for a couple of years and operated racing programs until the track was finally closed.
Maryland thoroughbred track operator Joe De Francis said yesterday he would welcome working with a horsemen-owned company.
"We have a vested interest in what goes on at the harness tracks because of all the different arrangements we have in operating inter-track and off-track betting facilities with them," De Francis said.
"Our fates are tied together. Instead of harness horsemen and management arguing on how to divide up their slice of the pie, there would be one group, the horsemen, in charge and they could spend all of their time working on ways to improve their product. It seems to me that Cloverleaf buying the tracks would be the best solution under the current conditions.
"I also want to emphasize, unequivocally," De Francis added, "that neither me nor any of my interests whatsoever are involved in this purchase."
ROSECROFT/DELMARVA OWNERSHIP CHRONOLOGY
1949: Rosecroft is founded at the Fort Washington (Prince George's County) farm of William E. Miller. Miller, an amateur harness trainer-driver, owns and operates the track until he dies during a race in Harrington, Del. Miller's sons, John W. Miller and Bill Miller II, eventually assume control.
1986: The Miller family also buys Ocean Downs near Ocean City and renames it Delmarva Downs.
1987: The Miller family sells both Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways to Washington-area real estate developer Mark E. Vogel.
1991: Vogel files for bankruptcy protection and the track operates under a trustee (James Murphy) appointed by the Maryland Racing Commission until it is re-sold.
October 1991: Colt Enterprises, a Columbia, Md.-based company owned by Los Angeles businessman Fred Weisman, buys Rosecroft/Delmarva.
September 1994: Weisman dies in California.
January 1995: Sale of the two tracks by Colt Enterprises appears imminent.