When the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners' Association board meets tonight, it will be deciding how to gamble on the future of harness racing in Maryland.
One board member, trainer Bibb Roberts, is placing his bet with a casino operator, Bally's. Another board member, breeder Joe Thomson, is putting his money on Cloverleaf. They represent the opposing viewpoints on whether the Rosecroft and Delmarva tracks should be sold to a casino operator or to horsemen.
"I'm going with Bally's," Roberts said. "In the short term, it's a better deal."
"I was going to vote for the Bally's deal until I saw the intensity of how much they wanted us to accept it," Thomson said. "They are like any other businessmen. They want to buy cheap and sell high."
The Cloverleaf board will make the decision tonight in Annapolis, meeting on the issue for the third time in two weeks. The vote could split apart the state's entire horse industry.
Earlier this year, when casino gaming legislation was introduced in Annapolis, the Maryland Horse Coalition, composed of thoroughbred and harness interests, opposed the operation of casinos if they competed with racetracks. Some thoroughbred horse breeders and owners take a stronger stance -- they oppose casinos, period.
But an anti-casino stance would be hard to maintain if the thoroughbred industry's partner in intertrack and off-track betting parlors -- now jointly operated at eight locations in the state by thoroughbred and harness interests -- is a casino operator that owns Rosecroft and Delmarva.
Roberts sees potential in such a partnership.
"If casinos do come [to Maryland] and Bally's is already here and doing a good job of operating Rosecroft and creating jobs, then if I'm a legislator, I'm going to want to put those casinos at a racetrack," Roberts said.
Thomson said he is looking at the future, too, and that's why he doesn't want to sell to Bally's.
"We can go for the quick fix and take the Bally's deal," said Thomson, owner of Winbak and White Horse farms in Chesapeake City in Cecil County and described as Maryland's largest commercial breeder. "Or bite the bullet, do what we have to do and sacrifice now, and control our own future.
"It's like making a career choice. Do you go for a job that offers you $10,000 a year for the rest of your life? Or do you go for the opportunity that says, based on your ability, you are going to earn a lot more in the future? To us, that big hit later will be gaming. I'm willing to take the gamble now and sell my 80 yearlings in the next two years for less knowing that in the long term I'll make more."
Cloverleaf has split into two factions -- the Bally's proponents distrust Cloverleaf's leadership, and the other side wants to run Rosecroft and Delmarva with its own subsidiary operation and possibly enter the gaming business itself if casinos come to Maryland.
Discussions in recent weeks have been boisterous, marked by name-calling and in-your-face tactics by disgruntled members. At times, it's hard to believe the Cloverleaf membership shares a common bond of owning and training harness horses.
Time is running out for Cloverleaf to make a decision.
The tracks' current owners, Colt Enterprises, have set a deadline of June 28 to find out if the horsemen's organization is going to honor a letter of intent to buy the plants.
That move appeared set until Bally's Entertainment Corp. appeared at the 11th hour two weeks ago and offered to take over Cloverleaf's option to buy the tracks, in turn giving the horsemen 5 percent equity in a corporation it would form to buy
the tracks as well as 2.5 percent of net gaming revenues if Bally's ends up with casino gambling at the tracks.
Cloverleaf appeared ready to proceed with its own plan, which included a $1 million loan from Maryland thoroughbred track operator Joe De Francis, until the board agreed to table any resolution until it could study the Bally's offer for another week.
Last Tuesday, Cloverleaf met for a second time, and after a heated meeting, voted down the Bally's offer, 16-14.
But at the same meeting, another gaming group, International Gaming Strategies, unexpectedly offered Cloverleaf a sweeter deal that includes a larger percentage of net gaming revenues for the horsemen.
The board voted to meet again today and reconsider all offers. In the interim, speculation has grown that enough horsemen will switch their votes to accept the Bally's proposal.
"[Bally's] guarantees to pay the full percentage of the purses we now receive," Roberts said. "If Cloverleaf buys the tracks, our purses will be reduced indefinitely. Our owners just can't take any more [purse] reductions. I know, because I hear it all the time from my owners."
Thomson said he's willing to lend up to $500,000 to add to De Francis' $1 million loan offer to put the tracks in the hands of Cloverleaf.