Rosecroft, Ocean Downs are set to change owners, but to whom is uncertain Owners vote to sell to Rickman, but Bally's says it has contract

December 13, 1996|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The Rosecroft and Ocean Downs harness racetracks appear ready to change hands. But who is going to end up with them is unclear.

Representatives of Cloverleaf Enterprises, the horsemen who own Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs, met yesterday with the Rickman family, owners of Delaware Park, about an impending purchase.

The tracks' directors have voted to accept Rickman's offer.

However, Bally's Entertainment, which has been managing the tracks since last year, says it has a deal to purchase them from Cloverleaf.

Any sale must be approved by the Maryland Racing Commission. In addition, Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico, has asked Cloverleaf for a 30-day delay of the sale for an opportunity to equal or better the Delaware offer.

"The negotiations with Bally's didn't go as well as expected," said Gerald Brittingham, Cloverleaf president. "They elected not to accept our final proposal."

Bally's lobbyist and legal counsel, Dennis McCoy, said: "As far as I'm concerned, there is a contract. Bally's unconditionally accepted one of their options and owns the two standardbred tracks."

According to McCoy, the casino company agreed to a five-year guarantee of racing at both facilities, a buyback proposal for the horsemen if slot machines come to Maryland, a minimum number of racing days at both tracks and the horsemen's right to keep both open as training centers.

McCoy would not speculate whether Bally's will take the issue to court, but said, "My guess isthat if they're in for a penny, they're in for a pound."

But Brittingham said Bally's accepted an offer that was "not on the table. So we're moving on to our next option."

Cloverleaf is feeling a sense of urgency because the Maryland Racing Commission is scheduled to hold a hearing next week on the status of harness racing, which has lost more than $3 million in two years.

The Rickman family, which lives in Maryland, has offered $13.5 million to buy the tracks outright, a total that would erase Cloverleaf's debt of $10.5 million to Bally's and $3 million to vendors.

"What we're trying to do is protect our interests in Delaware," said Bill Rickman Jr., president and chief executive officer of Delaware Park. "We want to make sure nothing adverse happens in Maryland to affect Delaware racing."

Rickman said he is "cautious" about completing the purchase. "It is a tough call, because the track still belongs to them. But I think we've got a pretty good track record for doing the right thing for the industry."

"We've been led to believe the Rickmans are fired up and sincere about this," said Brittingham. "The feeling is that if we've got to go with somebody, we want them to be familiar with track operations and pari-mutuel wagering."

Cloverleaf has been disenchanted with Bally's management of the tracks after accepting the loan in 1995 in exchange for an option to Bally's to buy 50 percent equity in both tracks if Maryland received casino-type gambling.

The introduction of slots in Delaware last year has severely affected Rosecroft, which is now running only two nights a week, often with short fields. Meanwhile, Dover Downs is prospering with daily purse outlays increasing to $100,000 and no horse shortages.

Rickman said his main interest is "Ocean Downs as an extension for Delaware racing" and that the slot issue in Maryland is not a factor at this time.

"Harness racing is hurting," he said. "We plan to keep both tracks going. The problem can be fixed. If we didn't think we could do something about it, we wouldn't be in this."

Rickman's assurances include five years of live racing at both tracks with 150 nights annually guaranteed at Rosecroft and 30 at Ocean Downs, which operates live during the summer months.

De Francis asked for 30 days "to better, or at least match," Delaware Park's offer, he wrote in a letter to Brittingham yesterday. De Francis wrote that he views the potential sale to Delaware Park "with gravest concern."

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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