Voters OK new W.Va. games But Glendening says he still opposes slots at Md. horse tracks

Some in Maryland worried

Racing officials call situation 'awfully grim'

November 07, 1996|By Tom Keyser and Thomas W. Waldron | Tom Keyser and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday stood firm in his opposition to slot machines to help Maryland racing, even as the industry's advocates sounded alarms about Tuesday's approval of slots-style gambling at a track on the state's western border.

The approval of video-lottery devices at the horse track in Charles Town, W.Va., which is near the Maryland border 25 miles west of Frederick, will not change the governor's position, said Judi Scioli, Glendening's press secretary.

"No bill that authorizes slot machines or casinos will pass my desk," the governor said in a terse statement released by Scioli.

On Tuesday, voters in Jefferson County, W.Va., approved video-lottery machines at the Charles Town track, 7,888-4,418.

The machines, which are similar to slots except that they pay off in vouchers that must be cashed, are expected to generate a flood of revenue that will keep the 63-year-old track open and subsidize the racing operation.

Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns horse tracks and off-track betting networks in Pennsylvania, plans to buy Charles Town for $16.5 million. The company plans to spend another $16 million to renovate the track and reopen it next spring with upgraded horse racing and 400 video-lottery machines.

The company hopes eventually to install 1,000 of the gambling machines, said Peter M. Carlino, the company's chairman and chief executive.

On Maryland's eastern border, tracks in Delaware offer slot machines -- into which patrons this year have pumped more than $1.5 billion. And in Pennsylvania, lawmakers have proposed two bills authorizing slot machines at that state's tracks.

Maryland's two harness tracks, Rosecroft in Prince George's County and Ocean Downs near Ocean City, are threatening to close or declare bankruptcy largely because of competition from slots in Delaware, and representatives of the thoroughbred industry said they feel the walls closing in.

"I feel like I'm living a black-and-white movie I watched when I was a kid," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "The Indians are surrounding the wagon train.

"The geography of this thing just boggles the mind. They're going to be sucking us dry."

Added Joseph A. De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, the state's two main thoroughbred tracks: "To say we are extremely concerned would be the grossest of understatements. Everywhere we turn, things just look awfully grim."

During Maryland's legislative session this year, the racing industry proposed a measure that would allow slot machines at four tracks -- two thoroughbred, two harness -- and a number of off-track betting sites. That bill died in committee.

This summer, Glendening vowed never to sign a bill authorizing slots at racetracks.

Reacting to Tuesday's vote in West Virginia, the General Assembly's presiding officers restated their support for legalizing slot machines at Maryland's tracks.

"I think it's time for a reality check," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Forward-thinking Marylanders should consider it very carefully because it's a definite trend.

"Gambling is an evil but it's here, and we're not going to abolish it anytime soon. So let's manage it. Don't let other states pick Marylanders' pockets," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

Democratic House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who lives in Cumberland, predicted that new gambling at Charles Town would attract large numbers of Maryland residents.

"It's obviously going to have a significant economic impact on Maryland -- similar to the Delaware and Atlantic City impact," Taylor said. "Charles Town is in the back yard of Western Maryland."

But Taylor said the Charles Town situation would have no major effect in the legislature, given the governor's firm opposition to expanded gambling.

"As long as his position is what it is, I don't think the dynamic will change at all," Taylor said.

Dickie Moore, general manager of the Charles Town track, said 88 percent of its patrons are from out of state. He said that most are from Maryland and Virginia, but that he did not have breakdowns.

"And I imagine that after we reopen with video lottery," Moore said, "we'll draw even more people from Maryland."

One place where a rejuvenated Charles Town probably will have an immediate effect is the Cracked Claw, Maryland's most successful off-track betting facility. Situated in Urbana in Frederick County, the Cracked Claw is 28 miles from Charles Town.

John Poole, who owns the restaurant, bar and betting center, said many customers probably would choose Charles Town over his place, especially couples.

But Bernie Horn, executive director of NocasiNo, which opposes slots or casinos in Maryland, accused the Maryland racing industry of "crying wolf" and said the Charles Town situation would have no impact in Annapolis.

Horn noted that the state's thoroughbred tracks enjoyed a banner year in betting and profits last year.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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