Race slots: Boom or bust? Opinion split: The horse racing LTC industry is divided between Delaware, which has slots, and Maryland, which does not.

April 10, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

STANTON, Del. -- To hear Joe De Francis tell it, Delaware Park will open its thoroughbred racing season Saturday, and Maryland racing will collapse, as if clunked in the temple by a tire iron.

To hear Bill Rickman Jr. tell it, Delaware Park will open Saturday, and Maryland racing will feel nothing.

What's behind this great disparity in viewpoints? Slot machines.

Delaware has them. Maryland does not.

"You're led to believe that we're bringing Maryland racing to its knees," says Rickman, president of Delaware Park, the quaint country racetrack southwest of Wilmington. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

"His comments are perfectly predictable," responds De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the Pimlico and Laurel tracks. "He has a strong interest in Maryland not getting slots. He'll do anything to underplay this."

And will De Francis, who has a strong interest in Maryland's getting slots, do anything to overplay it?

"We're underestimating the threat, if anything," De Francis says. "We're having a horrible time filling races now, and Delaware hasn't even opened yet."

The threat, as De Francis sees it, is the stampede of Maryland horses and bettors across the state line into Delaware, where profits from slot machines have enriched racing purses. Although Delaware Park doesn't open its 130-day meet until Saturday, it has announced a purse structure rivaling Maryland's.

During the past decade, Maryland has paid the top finishers in its horse races at least double what Delaware Park has paid. That ensured Maryland the better horses, better racing and better gambling.

But now, because of slot machines, Delaware Park opens its 1996 season with purses nearly on par with Maryland.

Next month, Delaware Park will push its racing purses even higher. Rickman says they won't increase more than 20 percent. De Francis predicts that they'll double.

In either case, the additional money comes from the same golden egg: slots.

On Dec. 29, Delaware Park and Dover Downs, a harness track, began operating slot machines -- Delaware Park 715 of them, Dover 500. And next month, Delaware Park plans to add 285 machines, and Dover will follow with another 500.

From the beginning, the flashing, jingling machines were phenomenally successful, generating about double the profits projected by the state.

March figures won't be available until the end of this week, but the latest numbers from Jan. 29 through Feb. 25 show that $117.5 million was bet on the machines -- $83.1 at Delaware Park and $34.4 million at Dover.

Of the total wagered, $107.2 million was returned to bettors in winnings. That left $10.3 million to be divided among the tracks, the state and the slot-machine vendors.

Based on the formula that slices up every wagered dollar, $676,200 went into racing purses at Delaware Park and $396,000 into purses at Dover Downs.

Unlike Delaware Park, still three days from offering live racing, Dover Downs is racing and competing head-to-head with Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County. Because of slot-machine profits and dramatically higher racing purses, Dover has lured horses that in the past would be racing in Maryland.

That is precisely what De Francis fears will happen with thoroughbreds when Delaware Park begins competing head-to-head with Pimlico. "If the same thing happens to us that's happening to Rosecroft, we're in a heap of trouble," De Francis says. "Even if we lose only a few horses, that's still a big, big deal."

Even a few is crucial because Pimlico, like horse tracks throughout the country, suffers from a shortage of racehorses. In an effort to keep Maryland horses racing in Maryland, De Francis is offering bonuses to attract more horses per race and also permitting trainers to run their horses out of state only if a comparable race is not offered here.

And, De Francis says, he will continue seeking slot machines in Maryland. Last month, the state's horse industry dropped its bid to legalize slots in the face of sure defeat by the Legislature.

Richard J. Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents owners and trainers, says Delaware Park will hurt Maryland racing: "The question is, how much?"

But he says he doesn't expect an exodus of horses to Delaware, because "horsemen don't like to ship. It's real expensive. . . . They'd rather run their horses at home, as long as the race is here for them."

De Francis and his staff have pledged to work with trainers to create races they want.

Tim F. Ritchey, who stables horses at Laurel and Delaware Park, says of Delaware's higher purse structure: "I don't think it's going to make a whole lot of difference, to tell you the truth. The less shipping you do, the easier it is on your horses and your help."

Dale Capuano, Laurel's second-leading trainer, agrees. Nevertheless, Capuano, intrigued by Delaware Park's slot-inspired resurgence, inquired about stalls there for a dozen of his turf horses. He was told the track's 1,450 stalls were filled.

"I guess they didn't want to upset De Francis," Capuano says.

Delaware Park purposely avoided recruiting Maryland trainers, say Rickman, the track owner, and Mike DeJesse, assistant racing secretary.

"We didn't go down and hustle any horses from Maryland," DeJesse says. "We looked for new trainers from other states, from Florida, New England, even Texas and Arizona. We got trainers coming who've never been this far north. They want to know, 'Delaware, where's that at?' "

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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