Maryland racing drops state subsidy proposal But new laws sought to keep sport healthy

February 08, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

Maryland's thoroughbred racing industry has dropped its plan to seek some $35 million in annual state subsidies, but still wants major changes in the laws governing track operations.

Joe De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, said he has abandoned his effort to receive direct state payments in the face of strong opposition from legislative leaders.

"In talking to legislators, it appeared to be literally dead on arrival," De Francis said of the subsidy proposal.

But, industry-backed legislation introduced in the General Assembly yesterday would:

* Permit Pimlico to reduce or eliminate its live racing offerings. De Francis said he would like to run only one spring meet centered on the Preakness Stakes at the Baltimore track.

* Allow the closure of the Bowie horse-training center and the transfer of its operations to Laurel.

* Require the state to pick up some $1.4 million in racing-related costs now borne by the industry, such as racing stewards.

Racetrack representatives say the changes are needed to help the state's racing industry stay healthy.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the measure's chief sponsor, said she has heard the racing industry's repeated claims of financial distress but wants to explore its health more thoroughly.

"We're not always sure of all the facts and figures we were getting," said Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat.

While the bill seeks significant changes in Maryland racing, it does not directly address the industry's No. 1 concern -- the arrival of slot-machine gambling at Delaware race courses.

Slot machines have been operating at two Delaware tracks since December, and Maryland racing officials fear the devices will siphon off gamblers from tracks here and eventually drive down the purses and betting handle.

Officials in Delaware said that profits from the slot machines have exceeded their expectations in the first month of operation.

At Delaware Park, the machines generated profits of $5.2 million, while those at Dover Downs produced $3.1 million in profits, according to the Delaware lottery agency.

Those figures are roughly twice as high as officials had projected, said Wayne Lemons, director of the Delaware lottery.

"The pace has been steady at both tracks," Lemons said. "Both of them have very good business, and we see no reason it will decline."

De Francis yesterday released a consultant's study he commissioned that projects a substantial loss of business and revenue at Maryland tracks because of the Delaware slots.

The report, by Thalheimer Research Associates of Lexington, Ky., concluded that it was too early to gauge the actual impact of the Delaware gambling.

But it predicts that if the experience in Maryland resembles that in other states where racing competed with casino-style gambling, the state's racing industry could lose some 2,100 jobs.

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