Commission works to get beyond slots State's purchase of tracks is 'one option' discussed

September 18, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Despite declaring slot machines off the table, the state commission to aid the horse-racing industry spent much of yesterday dealing with slots as the dinner guest who wouldn't leave.

"I think it's absolutely foolish not to at least consider it," said Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"I believe sincerely the only long-term solution to the problems of the racing industry in Maryland is to put slot machines at the racetracks," said Joe De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Even a member of the commission, Del. Clarence Davis, a Democrat from Baltimore, said of ignoring slots: "I think we're like ostriches with our heads in the sand."

Yesterday's meeting in Annapolis was the second of the study commission, created by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly to look at ways of improving the financial health of the horse-racing industry. Because of Glendening's pledge to veto any legislation authorizing slots, the commission was supposed to focus on other ways of assisting the industry.

It is to submit a written report by Nov. 1 that could serve as a blueprint for legislative action.

Representatives of every aspect of the horse industry -- thoroughbred and standardbred -- agreed that the General Assembly should continue diverting money from the lottery, as it did this year, into racing purses. That grant of $5 million, in addition to other state assistance, helped Maryland tracks compete with Delaware tracks, where profits from slots have swelled purses.

After that, however, a wide-range of suggestions surfaced. Several witnesses proposed creating a state sports authority that would buy Pimlico and Laurel Park from De Francis, renovate them and then lease them back to him to operate.

"It could be like Saratoga," said Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, referring to Pimlico. "But I really don't expect Joe De Francis to put up the money to make it like Saratoga."

Others urged the commission to support what they said will be the next great innovation in horse racing: betting at home while watching a national racing channel.

Other suggestions included closing the Bowie Training Center, increasing track marketing and advertising, promoting the human and equine racing stars, staging non-racing horse- and pony-related activities at the tracks, transforming the tracks into entertainment centers with restaurants and concerts, and consolidating thoroughbred racing in the state by building "one grand track."

De Francis said the state buying the tracks was "one option." But he said refurbishing the "aging dilapidated facilities" into the "racing equivalent of Camden Yards" would cost $200 million.

And an infusion of so much cash can come from only one source, several testified: slot machines.

Even Bill Rickman, whose family owns Delaware Park, spoke at the request of the commission. Delaware Park's 1,000 slot machines, plus machines at Delaware's two harness tracks, will attract a projected $4 billion in wagers by the end of the year.

Rickman said he preferred that Maryland not legalize slots. But if it did and restricted them to racetracks, he said, he would not oppose it.

He also countered a common theme of some witnesses and commission members that track management should promote the sport of racing and the beautiful horses instead of the wagering aspect.

"It is a beautiful animal," Rickman said of the racehorse. "But without the betting, there is no beautiful animal."

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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