With vested interest, Bally joins horsemen in stand against casinos

July 30, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Don't expect a chink to develop in the armor of the state's thoroughbred and harness racing industries as they present a unified front against the possible infringement of casino gaming on their gambling turf.

By lending nearly $11 million to harness horsemen to buy Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways, Bally Entertainment Corp., one of the country's largest casino operators, virtually owns Maryland's two harness racing tracks.

Initially, thoroughbred horsemen and track management regarded Bally as an evil interloper that could split its coalition with the harness side of the industry in an effort to keep out casinos.

Instead, Bally -- which also is exclusively managing the harness tracks -- is turning out to be a strong ally.

If the first of the public hearings held by the Tydings Commission in Easton last week is any indication, Bally is emerging as the new best friend of the state's entire cash-strapped racing industry.

When the turn came for proponents of casino gaming to speak at the forum -- designed to gauge public sentiment on the issue -- Bally officials were mute. Only spokesmen from one other casino company, Harrah's, and the state's ship and building trade industries rose to speak.

When panels of both harness and thoroughbred owners, trainers and breeders spoke in opposition of casinos, the Bally people hovered about like protective parents.

Why?

"In this state, we're in the horse racing business," said Bernie Murphy, Bally's vice president of corporate affairs and government relations.

By already throwing their lot in with harness horsemen, whose business is now intertwined with the thoroughbred's in inter-track and off-track operations, Bally has just at much at stake to keep other casino companies out of Maryland as the racing people do.

Now that Bally has heavily invested in Rosecroft's future, its certainly wants to keep Harvey's, another casino company, out of developing a possible gaming operation at the PortAmerica project, located just a few miles from the Fort Washington raceway.

It's not surprising, because Bally already owns two of the state's five tracks, that they would want casino gaming, if it comes, contained at those facilities. And in the process, if they build a rapport with Pimlico/Laurel officials, why not get in on the ground floor with the Maryland Jockey Club, too?

Bally officials already have expressed sentiment that they consider Laurel and Pimlico great locations for future casino gaming operations.

Instead of being the big, bad wolf, Bally has come dressed in sheep's clothing.

When the Maryland Million has its 10th anniversary at Laurel Park this fall, don't be surprised to see Bally as a new race sponsor -- or at next year's Preakness, for that matter.

In rapid succession, Bally, the harness horsemen, and now the thoroughbred horsemen and track management, are standing side by side in a hastily formed partnership -- strange new bedfellows in a quickly changing game.

"I think all of us understand that we're in the same boat," Joe De Francis, Pimlico/Laurel operator, said of the new union. "Faced with the outside intervention of other casino companies coming into the state, the primary goal for us is to preserve the horse industry. We will all be delivering the same message: Maryland's horse industry must be protected."

Racing 'czar' ousted

Barely a year after national racing commissioner Brian McGrath was installed in a reported $750,000-a-year job to lead the Thoroughbred Racing Associations to new heights, the TRA has dismissed McGrath and his position.

In a meeting in Chicago on Thursday, the TRA board voted to shut down its national office in New York and terminate McGrath's job, effective Aug. 31.

Among McGrath's assignments were an increased television and marketing presence for the sport, but little headway was made after member tracks in the organization failed to unite behind a national policy, and a National Pick-Six exotic wager, which was targeted to fund the program, flopped.

So far, the TRA's office in Fair Hill, which is headed by the group's executive vice president, Chris Scherf, is unaffected by the move.

Timonium's trainer challenge

Management at the half-mile Timonium Race Course is offering horsemen a hefty incentive to run their animals at the coming 10-day Maryland State Fair meet, which starts Aug. 25.

The trainer compiling the most wins will earn a $5,000 bonus.

That could make many horsemen think twice about shipping their stock to out-of-state tracks during the fair.

Timonium opens for stabling Aug. 12-13, and the track will be available for training Aug. 14.

S J's Photo in action Saturday

Maryland's harness horse supreme, S J's Photo, will be in action on the Hambletonian card at The Meadowlands on Saturday.

The aged trotter will race in the $300,000 Nat Ray Stakes on The Hambletonian undercard. A win in the race will push the 5-year-old horse past the $1 million earnings mark.

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