Slots delay doesn't cheer Md.

June 25, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Sept. 29.

That's the date Delaware Park has set for the opening of its slot machine emporium, a Victorian-style gaming complex located in the track's grandstand that is expected to pump new life into the old plant and restore it to its former grandeur.

The original casino opening was scheduled for Aug. 1, but delays were caused by that state's gaming commission, which has been establishing rules and regulations to govern the enterprise.

But, no matter, the later opening is only a momentary reprieve for what could turn out to be a serious threat to Maryland's horse racing industry.

Delaware officials recently returned from a scouting trip to Prairie Meadows, the once-moribund Iowa track that has been resuscitated by the installation of slots.

Average daily handle for the gaming devices there is $4 million, and a percentage of those revenues, plugged into thoroughbred purses, has driven up daily distribution for the horses to near $100,000.

Delaware already is projecting a $160,000 daily purse distribution next summer, which equals or could surpass prize money offered at Maryland tracks.

That could siphon off more of Maryland's shrinking horse supply and doom summer racing here or at a planned new track in Virginia.

Of course, big success for the slots in Delaware, if it comes, only will hasten a move in Maryland to add casino-style gaming at its horse gambling outlets.

"We know if the slots do well, then in five years, everyone around us will have them, too," said Steve Kallens, Delaware's marketing director.

"But until they do, we'll have the jump on everybody else and a chance to build up our clientele. We are also in a better financial situation than neighboring tracks. We've not only got a debt-free facility, but there's 600 acres here where we can develop projects such as building a golf course or a virtual-reality theme park.

"There's a strong atmosphere here now, a feeling that Delaware is a track on the move because of the anticipation of slots."

He added that daily purse distribution has risen from $44,000 in 1994 to $73,000 this year. "Although we had small fields at the beginning of the meet, we're ready to go to five days a week live racing for the next two months and offer nine or 10 thoroughbred races each day," he said.

The Delaware Handicap, the track's signature race for fillies and mares, is set for July 16.

Fight brewing over live races

A meeting between Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis and the board of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association on Tuesday night could be a lively one. De Francis will meet with the group in executive session in his offices at the track.

After a two-week trial period with eight-race weekday cards and a 3 p.m. post time, many horsemen want a return to nine live races and a 1 p.m. post.

"During the last 12 days, I've tracked the number of horses entered per race and it comes out to an average of 8.9 horses," said Wayne Wright, MTHA executive director.

"When we used to fill 54 [instead of the current 45] races a week, I'm sure we never averaged more than nine horses a race. To me, that shows support by our horsemen and a large enough horse population to merit going back to nine races on weekdays and 10 on weekends, 11 on Saturdays if possible."

Recent increases in field size can be attributed to a couple of factors. More 2-year-olds are entering the race force and a 40 percent purse bonus for open dirt races that draw eight or more betting interests has helped drive up the numbers.

So far, approximately $300,000 from about a $2 million purse surplus has been used to pay for the bonuses, said Lenny Hale, vice president of racing.

But live handle has not kicked in accordingly on weekdays, prompting disappointment with the 3 p.m. post.

De Francis has told MTHA officials he wants to stick to the present format. But he also is said to be considering going to a 1:30 p.m. post time on Tuesdays and Thursdays and keeping the 3 p.m. post on Fridays, although he wouldn't confirm it.

Both De Francis and MTHA representatives are in the process of compiling more data on the live handle and field size and how they compare with 1994 figures before Tuesday's meeting.

Taking Risks' new owner

Taking Risks, the 1994 Maryland-bred champion older horse who broke the sesamoid bones in his left front ankle about six weeks ago in the William Donald Schaefer Handicap at Pimlico, has a new owner.

He's Jamie Richardson, track superintendent at Pimlico, who was given the horse by his former owner, Baird Brittingham.

Brittingham is continuing to pay Taking Risks' medical bills until veterinarians give the OK to move the horse to Richardson's farm near Millers in northern Baltimore County.

Taking Risks' racing days are over, and Richardson hopes to use him as a riding horse as he accompanies his wife, Elaine, and her horse on the trails near Prettyboy Reservoir.

"He's smart, and I think he has the disposition to make the transition," Richardson said.

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