Casino issue isn't going away

March 05, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Efforts to bring a casino gambling bill to the floor of the state legislature for a vote this year appear doomed, killed a couple of weeks ago by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who said he would veto any such measure during the 1995 session.

But Friday, lawmakers and other interested parties got a preview of the debate that is likely to engulf Annapolis for the next 12 months while the issue is studied and brought back with fervor in 1996.

The two gambling giants -- horse racing and casino gaming interests -- that are at loggerheads squared off before the House Ways and Means and Judiciary committees for five hours.

They were there to speak for or against four bills that have been introduced in the House of Delegates permitting from 10 to 15 riverboat casinos in Maryland waters and the establishment of a regulatory commission to oversee them.

Though the measures are likely to be tabled in the immediate future, "We are terrified of these proposals," said Jay Schwartz, a lobbyist representing a coalition of Maryland racetrack owners and horsemen.

"Casinos kill horse racing," said Charles Lockhart, executive director of Cloverleaf, the organization representing harness horsemen and the body trying to purchase the state's two nearly bankrupt trotting tracks, Rosecroft Raceway and Delmarva Downs.

Track executives, including Joe De Francis of Laurel/Pimlico, said they expected handle at state tracks to drop 30 to 35 percent if operating in direct competition with casinos. "That would put us out of business," De Francis said.

Harford County horse breeder Josh Pons added: "They are trying to get you drunk with numbers."

And, indeed, "they" -- gaming executives and lobbyists representing about a half-dozen casino companies -- threw out some impressive figures to the lawmakers. Tax revenues derived from the operation of nine boats could bring $198 million annually to the state. Each boat, consisting of 40,000 square feet, would employ 1,500 people, and each operation would spend about $40 million annually in purchasing local goods.

"It's a rising tide that lifts all boats, if done right," said Michael Terry, vice president of corporate development for the Harrah's casino group.

But, said Pons, "Why listen to a guy from Harrah's whose suit probably cost more than my car?"

A panel of Maryland horse people consisting of Pons, thoroughbred owner-trainer Josephine Owens, harness breeder Sharon Roberts and Laurel stall superintendent Charlie Hall testified that they are "real people, all Marylanders, with real jobs at stake" representing the 22,000 other Marylanders whose livelihoods derived from horse racing could be jeopardized by casino gambling.

"The idea is to get the lawmakers to want to protect these [horse] people, and I think we've been successful," said Alan Rifkin, the lobbyist representing Laurel/Pimlico.

Sheila Hixson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and sponsor of the casino legislation, said: "We want to work with the racetracks, not against them."

But if the introduction of casino gambling in Maryland is just "a matter of time," according to one lawmaker, the question is how the two gambling giants can co-exist. Will the racetracks be thrown a crumb or become full-fledged partners with casino operators?

Those are the kinds of deals that will likely be negotiated in Annapolis during the next 12 months.

Collapse of the TRA?

Is the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, headquartered in Fair Hill with another office in Manhattan, on the verge of collapse?

Within the past couple of weeks, three member tracks of the association, which represents the bulk of major American racing operations, have dropped out of the organization. They are Oaklawn, Sportsman's and Beulah parks, located, respectively, in Arkansas, Illinois and Ohio.

Now comes word from Los Angeles Times racing writer Bill Christine that Hollywood Park is considering a move to drop out of the TRA and that the New York Racing Association tracks might not be far behind.

The reasons? Dues are too high and there are few benefits. Christine said a track such as Hollywood Park pays about $500,000 annually to the TRA and receives little in return. Tracks in the NYRA network, he said, pay even more.

Additionally, the TRA has had trouble introducing a National Best Seven bet, which has had disappointing wagering results.

However, there are still more than 30 racetracks in the organization, which sponsors the year-end Eclipse championship awards.

Taking Risks back in training

Champion Maryland-bred older horse Taking Risks has returned to training at Laurel Park after a 90-day layoff period for rest and rehabilitation.

It's conceivable that the 5-year-old gelding could start in the May 13 Pimlico Special.

"Originally, that wasn't in our plans," said trainer King Leatherbury. "But the horse puts so much into his training and is so much farther along than we thought he might be, that's it's not out of the question."

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