If tracks close in summer, there still will be options

ON HORSE RACING

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

With the proposed Maryland-Virginia racing circuit scheduled to start in seven months, horsemen have begun considering this strange, uncharted landscape.

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association met this week and chewed on the possibilities and consequences of shutting live racing in Maryland during a summer meet in Virginia.

Colonial Downs, the track under construction between Richmond and Williamsburg, is to open June 29 and conduct thoroughbred racing until Aug. 15. Maryland tracks would conduct no live racing during that time. But the Maryland Jockey Club, as agreed to in a deal with Colonial Downs' owners, would manage its thoroughbred racing in return for 2 percent of money wagered in Virginia.

The lively discussion by Maryland horsemen prompted Richard Hoffberger, president of the association, to declare: "There're lots of concerns and questions nobody knows answers to."

But two questions outweighed all others: Will stables in Maryland remain open during the Colonial Downs meet? And will trainers and owners be penalized for not racing in Virginia?

Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, quickly answered both questions. More than adequate stable space will remain open in Maryland, he said. And there will be no retribution against horsemen who choose not to race in Virginia, he promised.

On the contrary, De Francis said, he plans on providing incentives to entice them to race there. For instance, he said, under consideration is a plan to provide free shuttles for horses -- by van or train -- between Maryland barns and Colonial Downs.

But such plans are premature. What everyone is waiting to see, he and the horsemen agreed, is whether the track gets built by June. Its construction schedule is extremely tight.

Donald R. Price, executive director of the Virginia Racing Commission, said workers are pouring the grandstand foundation and that steel for the grandstand is to begin arriving early next month.

He said he believes that Colonial Downs, with no major winter assaults from Mother Nature, can meet its construction deadline.

The plan calls for a festive, Saratoga-type meet at a plush racetrack with a colonial design. What piques the horsemen's interest, however, is the promise of daily purses of $150,000.

"That's a lot of money," Hoffberger said. "And we're all in this to make money. If racing's good there, if there are races for our horses, we'll go."

But if Colonial Downs does not provide an attractive, profitable summer program, Maryland's horsemen can go elsewhere -- to slots-rich Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, even West Virginia, where little Charles Town racetrack is to be transformed into a Mediterranean-style racing and video-lottery center.

With such varied options, Maryland horsemen hold a strong hand. When it comes time to play, Colonial Downs must deal aces.

Sinking feeling

Gerald W. Brittingham, president of Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc. and the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, said last week that he feels like the captain of the Titanic.

"I know we're sinking," he said. "We're heading toward bankruptcy. The downturn in business plus competition from Delaware is really putting the squeeze on us."

Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc. owns the state's two harness tracks, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County and Ocean Downs near Ocean City.

A subsidiary of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, Cloverleaf Enterprises bought the tracks last year with a $10.6 million loan from Bally's, the casino company. In return, Bally's assumed management of the tracks.

Brittingham said he hopes this week to make progress toward salvaging the state's endangered harness industry. On Tuesday, he will chair a meeting at Rosecroft of the 30-member board of directors of the owners' association.

On Oct. 29, those directors voted overwhelmingly against accepting a bail-out proposal from Bally's. Bally's offered, in part, to buy Ocean Downs for $1 million, run it as a training center, restructure some of Cloverleaf's debt and return operation of Rosecroft to Cloverleaf.

"It accomplished what we wanted it to accomplish, which is give us life," Brittingham said of the offer. "But some of the members of the SOA board didn't want to lose Ocean Downs, especially for what they considered a low offer."

At Tuesday's meeting, he said, he hopes to find out what the SOA board might accept, so he can get back with Bally's and work a deal.

"We need to do something soon, something to give us a little breathing room," Brittingham said. "You can push it another week, and then another week, and then another week -- until you're out of business. I'd say at the rate we're losing money, if we made it until Christmas we'd be doing pretty good."

Jumping into money

Petroski, a 6-year-old trained in Monkton by Tom Voss, can clinch the steeplechase Eclipse Award with a win Nov. 17 in the $100,000 Colonial Cup in Camden, S.C.

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