Despite dire predictions of being overtaken by Delaware Park and its slot-machine jackpot, Maryland's major thoroughbred racetracks paid out more in average purses than Delaware did last year and may do so again this year.
Delaware Park officials plan to increase purses this year, but they predict that will only bring the purses into line with the winnings being paid by Maryland's two major tracks. Maryland track officials disagree and continue to predict ruin from the cross-border competitor.
In what has become a central element in Maryland's contentious debate over gambling policy, track owners in the two states disagree on how richly the other rewards horse owners. Each accuses the other of monkeying with the figures -- Maryland to make a case for adding slots and Delaware to retain its regional monopoly.
The Delaware track has more than doubled its purses since the (( installation of slot machines in late 1995, but the track says that growth has now slowed. Purses are paid to the top four finishers in a race and are funded chiefly from bets on races and -- where applicable -- slot machines.
Neither source is likely to grow appreciably in coming years, said William M. Rickman Jr., president of Delaware Park. "We have already plateaued," he said.
Joseph De Francis, owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, says Rickman is low-balling his estimates. De Francis has prepared a race-for-race comparison that shows Delaware Park's purses pushed ahead of Maryland's for similar races last year. The gap will grow when Delaware Park opens its April-to-November meet, De Francis said.
"They are trying to underplay this," De Francis said.
But Rickman said that De Francis' comparison includes only selected race categories and omits the bonuses, stakes and incentives that Maryland uses to enhance its payout.
"The fact of the matter is they can spend their money any way they want, but they have more money to spend than we do," Rickman said. "We're really getting tired of the things we're hearing from Maryland. The reality of the situation is they pay more."
Last year, Pimlico and Laurel paid out a combined $41 million in purses over 234 days of racing while Delaware Park, with 139 race days, paid out nearly $21 million. That works out to an average $188,264 a day at Pimlico and $169,453 at Laurel, according to a roundup by the Thoroughbred Times. Delaware Park averaged $150,766.
Delaware Park estimates it will pay an average of $155,000 this year.
"I think that is where they are going to stay. I think they have hit a plateau in the number of people they can get in and play the machines," said H.W. Towers, program administrator of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission.
Delaware Park started last year with 715 machines, moving to its legal limit of 1,000 in July. Slot machines provided more than half the purse money, or $11 million.
"I don't pay any attention to average daily purse. What a trainer does is sit down with their condition book and our condition book and decide where to race," said De Francis, who calculates that Delaware Park's purses could be as much as 50 percent higher for some races this year. Issued in advance of races, the condition book lists the requirements and purses for each race.
De Francis and other supporters of Maryland racing are pressing for the legalization of slot machines, a reduction in the state's already low tax rate on wagers, or other government assistance they say is necessary to meet Delaware's challenge.
And further trouble is looming: Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia will add slots this year.
Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said Delaware's newly fortified program is only now reaching its full potential and will inevitably set Maryland on a downward spiral.
"I think you'll start to see a diminishment of quality here," Capps ,, said.
If quality declines, it could reduce revenues for Maryland tracks and horse owners. Fans could turn away and out-of-state tracks could drop the Maryland signal from their simulcast menu, further diminishing the money available for purses.
There has been only anecdotal evidence of an impact for the Maryland tracks, which are coming off record profits in 1995 and expect to report another, smaller profit for 1996 despite the disastrous winter weather early in the year.
"Somebody over there [at Pimlico and Laurel] did a good job last year of getting horses and races. They didn't have less horses running per race, they had more," said Kenneth A. Schertle, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.
Schertle said he thinks Delaware's purses probably ended last year roughly comparable to Maryland's, and will pull ahead slightly this year. He predicts Delaware Park will end up at about $200,000 a day in purse money.