Racetracks may request state grant Under the proposal, $35 million a year would go to industry

'It will not happen'

Some legislators see move as an attempt to gain slot machines

January 27, 1996|By Frank Langfitt and Thomas W. Waldron | Frank Langfitt and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kent Baker contributed to this article.

In a bold move to protect the state's racing business, the horse industry is considering asking Maryland legislators for an unprecedented $35 million annual grant to refurbish racetracks and increase purses.

At a time when lawmakers are thinking about spending $273 million in public funds to help build two football stadiums, track owner Joseph A. De Francis said yesterday the money might be better spent helping state racecourses compete with recently opened slot machines at tracks in Delaware.

"I've got to cut costs dramatically or come up with a new source of revenue," Mr. De Francis said. "I don't know what else to do."

Mr. De Francis owns the Laurel and Pimlico thoroughbred racecourses. He said spending state money on the horse industry, which generates an estimated $1 billion annually for Maryland's economy, makes more sense than subsidizing football stadiums, which hold only 10 games a year.

The proposal, which Mr. De Francis said is under consideration, is thought to have little chance of passage in the General Assembly.

Top legislative leaders said it would be next to impossible to use public funds to revitalize the tracks.

"It will not happen," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.

Some legislators saw the request as an attempt to prod the General Assembly into considering legalizing slot machines at Maryland tracks. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to veto any such bills this year.

Besides the $35 million in state funds, the horse industry is considering asking legislators for other measures to help cut costs and increase revenue.

Those proposals -- thought to have better chances of passage -- include:

* Permitting Mr. De Francis to reduce or eliminate live racing at Pimlico Race Course, while still profiting from intertrack wagering.

* Having the Maryland government assume $825,000 in annual salaries the tracks now pay state auditors, guards and inspectors.

* Expanding the hours for summer thoroughbred racing and increasing the number of days for harness racing.

* Permitting the closure of the Bowie horse training center as long as sufficient stalls are provided at Laurel Race Course.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he has met a few times with racetrack officials to discuss their ideas and said they have some merit.

"I'm sympathetic to helping the racing industry," said Mr. Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat. "I think we have to explore how we can help them."

Despite the governor's pledge to veto any slot machine legislation this year, Mr. Taylor seemed to hold out hope yesterday, saying that legalizing slots is "conceivable" in 1996.

"What's going on in Delaware has to have a direct bearing on our racetrack future," he said.

But Mr. Miller said the issue would have to wait.

"1996 is not a slot machine year," he said.

Two Delaware racetracks began operating more than 1,200 slot machines and video lottery terminals last month -- a move Mr. De Francis says could slowly send his tracks into bankruptcy. He has commissioned a study of the potential impact on his business. It is expected to be released next week.

"We're very concerned about what we're seeing in Delaware," Mr. De Francis said.

It is not clear what proposals, if any, the horse industry will submit to the General Assembly, which opened its annual 90-day session this month. Neither the state's horse breeders nor horsemen have taken a final position on the measures proposed.

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said his group likely could support many of the provisions. Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the proposals would not affect his members much.

"There are a couple of changes, but they won't have a major impact," he said.

The Maryland racing industry, highly regulated by the state, often has asked for concessions from the legislature -- and often has won them. Most notably, in 1985, the General Assembly slashed the tax rate on racing profits from slightly more than 4 percent to 0.5 percent.

In a related matter, Mr. De Francis denied a published report yesterday that said he planned to move the Preakness from Pimlico.

"The Preakness is not going anywhere," he said. "I'll say that as loud and clear as I can. It is unequivocal nonsense."

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