Maryland seeks answers to Delaware slots' threat


January 21, 1996|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The alarms continue to sound around the Maryland racing community.

The reason for the red alert: slot machine gambling at Delaware Park and Dover Downs. Possible repercussions: a decline in the quality of racing, horses, fans and betting in Maryland and, at the worst, perhaps a threat to the sport's survival.

"What is happening is very alarming," said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park and Pimlico. "This issue dwarfs everything else right now. It's at the very foundation of our ability to survive."

Delaware tracks are producing revenue at breakneck speed, with the slots drawing more racing customers and simulcast handles up 35 percent. Purses could double in the near future.

The development has affected Rosecroft Raceway, with rival harness track Dover Downs in session. The Maryland thoroughbred tracks will be spared a direct hit until Delaware Park opens in the spring.

Purse increases at Dover are expected to reach the $50,000 to $60,000 range daily. Compared with the $37,000 average Rosecroft closed with in December, those numbers are astronomical.

As a result, standardbred horsemen -- many of whom live on the Eastern Shore -- are shifting to Dover, and Rosecroft is facing a severe horse shortage.

Rosecroft president Dennis Dowd has sent track official Hugh Gallagher to Florida to implore horsemen returning north to stop at his track on the way back. He also is appealing to his own clan stabled at partner track Delmarva Downs.

"We're sending a letter to every member of Cloverleaf [Standardbred Owners Association, the horsemen's group that owns Rosecroft] telling them the progress we've made and asking them to support the racetrack they own," he said.

At least Dowd's decision to close this month has enabled management to fend off some terrible weather, gather its thoughts, do some manicuring at the plant and ponder potential counter moves.

But he said if Delaware continues to produce money so quickly, "We might be dead."

De Francis is "very concerned" and doesn't expect the slot revenue to wane.

"Prairie Meadows [in Iowa] has been open almost a year and hasn't slowed down," he said. "There is just as good a chance with improvement in the weather that [the numbers] might increase."

The political climate in the state has been against slots, with the governor on record as opposing any form of casino gambling.

"If that doesn't change, we may need some relief from the state," said De Francis. "We can't just sit by and let this destroy our industry.

"The winter we've had has only exacerbated the problem, added to the sense of urgency. We just can't continue the ordinary conduct of business."

Md. horse in Preakness?

If all goes according to plan, Marylanders will have another rooting interest in the Preakness.

Irish Cloud's itinerary is being constructed with the second jewel of the Triple Crown in mind. The Preakness is May 18 at Pimlico.

The exquisitely bred colt (by former Maryland stallion Private Terms out of Arctic Cloud) is owned by Bill and Phyllis Fitzgibbons.

"[Trainer] Dick Delp mapped out a plan with three different routes, but the final goal is to run in the Preakness," said Fitzgibbons, a Baltimore roofer.

"The horse is still young and lightly raced, but he's doing everything right and we won't have to go anywhere for the Preakness. He's in the barn next to the stakes barn."

Irish Cloud won a seven-furlong prep Dec. 3, then finished a strong second to Favorable Ruling in the Maryland Juvenile Championship three weeks later.

He was scheduled to compete in a stakes at Aqueduct after that, but the weather ruined that plan, and he'll now go today in the $50,000 Dancing Count Stakes at Laurel.

"It's a regression in distance [back to seven furlongs], but it's what we have to do," said Fitzgibbons. "After that, we'll probably try New York again in early February. Then there are all kinds of stakes around in March."

Irish Cloud was inactive much of last year because of a tender shin. He returned in November and had so-so results after straightening in the gate his first two starts.

And the Kentucky Derby?

"If he keeps running the way he is and stays sound, we could change the original schedule and drop a race for the Derby," said Fitzgibbons. "But right now we're not thinking about it."

Million nominations up

Maryland Million nominations of yearlings (1995 foals) reached a new high this year, with breeders nominating more than 800 horses from the pool of Maryland-sired eligibles.

In addition to the yearlings, more than 700 foals of 1994 (2-year-olds) have been nominated for lifetime eligibility in the Maryland Million program.

This year's Maryland Million will be Oct. 12 at Laurel Park, where it started in 1986.

Racing info

The Baltimore Sun is offering expanded horse racing results and entries through Sundial, our telephone information service, and by fax. All services are free.

For information, call (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. After the greeting, using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code that corresponds to the track you want:

* Aqueduct: 5042

* Fairgrounds: 5044

* Freehold: 5033

* Garden State: 5043

* Gulfstream: 5040

* Laurel: 5038

* Penn National: 5030

* Phila. Park: 5035

* Santa Anita: 5036

* Suburban: 5046

* Suffolk: 5039

* Turfway: 5045

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