Purses in Del. trigger alarms Md. horse industry sees increased threat

March 01, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Delaware Park has offered an aggressive purse schedule for the thoroughbred meet that starts in April, and Maryland racing officials say it confirms their fears that their competitor could divert horses and dollars from the local tracks.

The Stanton, Del., track has sketched out a racing program for the first few weeks of its meet that offers an average of nearly $190,000 a day in purses if all its races fill with entrants. That would be a whopping increase from the $144,000 the track gave out last year, and surpass the $177,000 paid by Maryland's tracks last year.

Delaware Park officials insist that they will not come close to filling the races necessary to pay $190,000. They estimate that they will end up averaging $155,000 this year -- higher than last year, but still below Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

But competitors in surrounding states say Delaware's average will be much higher because of the millions of dollars Delaware Park earns from video gambling machines and must, by law, distribute in purses.

"They've got so much money that they could just turn on the spigot and flood the market," said Philadelphia Park spokesman Steve Kallens, who estimates Delaware's purses could top $200,000 per day this year.

The purse debate, a mind-numbing comparison of winnings, premiums and other incentives tracks use to lure horses, will have a tangible impact on Maryland gambling policy. The state's horse industry is seeking state aid, from tax reductions to the legalization of new forms of gaming, to combat what it says is a threat to its survival.

Delaware and Maryland racing officials accuse each other of fudging the figures to further their political agendas -- Maryland to get the lucrative slots and Delaware to maintain its monopoly.

"The notion that you write a book expecting a lot of the races not to fill is insane. The disingenuousness of that speaks for itself," said Laurel and Pimlico principal owner Joe De Francis.

But Delaware Park owner William M. Rickman Jr. said: "We will do $155,000 a day. That's what we'll do. Everything they [Maryland race officials] have done over the past two years was done to make us look like we are hurting them. I'm tired of being the bad guy."

A purse can range from a few thousand dollars to a half-million and is typically divvied up among the owners of the first five finishers of a race. If Delaware Park can consistently pay more, it could erode Maryland's regional dominance of the industry.

Whether or not that is happening is bitterly contested. The "condition book" -- an advance schedule -- for the first 14 days of the Delaware meet, which runs from April 5 to Nov. 9, has just been issued by the track and offers the first glimpse of the coming battle.

"The book is a little more aggressive than I expected. If they follow last year's pattern, I think that they will have increases later in the year," said Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. Delaware's first book last year averaged about $110,000.

He said Delaware will emerge as a regional magnet, attracting horses from out of state that might otherwise run in Maryland or local animals that would have been shipped to the richer meets )) in New York.

"If we are all right in that we think Delaware Park will be able to pull people in the high categories and the trend in the region is steady, then Maryland is going to get nicked in a lot of areas," Capps said.

"I've never been a proponent of talking about Delaware as a threat. I look at Delaware as an example of what you can do with your program."

At first glance, the numbers in Delaware's book are ominous. In the first 14 race days of the meet, Delaware Park is offering $2.7 million in purses and stakes awards. That is comparable to the final 14 days of the current Laurel Park condition book, which runs through March 6, not a particularly rich period on the racing calendar, and offers $2.3 million.

Delaware seems to have an advantage in most categories of races. A $5,000 claiming race at Delaware, for example, will carry purse of $8,500. Laurel pays $6,750. A $20,000 claiming race at Delaware pays $21,000 to Laurel's $15,360. A typical allowance race for horses who have not won two races pays $24,000 at Delaware to $18,000 at Laurel.

But simple comparisons are elusive because the tracks distribute their money differently. Laurel and Pimlico pack more money in high-profile, prestigious stakes races.

The two Maryland tracks are host to about 140 stakes races a year, culminating in the $500,000 Preakness Stakes in May. Laurel had two $200,000 races in February: the Barbara Fritchie and General George handicaps. Delaware is beefing up its stakes schedule, but will have only one race that rich all year, the $350,000 Delaware Handicap, its signature event.

And Maryland's tracks pay millions of dollars a year in special incentives, such as a breeding fund that adds about 12 percent to a purse for a Maryland-bred winner.

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