Racing in line for $5M boost Study recommends state grant increase from lottery revenue

Options seen as short-term

Measures proposed as slots competition

October 16, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The state's study commission on the horse-racing industry will recommend that the state grant the industry $10 million from the lottery next year -- up from $5 million this year.

At a meeting yesterday in Annapolis, the commission also agreed to recommend that the governor and legislature approve other measures to assist the industry in its competitive struggle against racetracks with slot machines in neighboring states.

Although Gov. Parris N. Glendening had declared slot machines off the table for this study commission, the sticky subject never completely disappeared.

Yesterday, as commission members began discussing long-term options to aid the industry, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman turned to Eugene A. Conti Jr., chairman of the group, and said: "You left off one of the long-term options."

"Which one?" Conti asked.

"The one about slot machines," Hoffman replied.

Hoffman and Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, heads of powerful Senate committees, said the options recommended yesterday were, at best, short-term solutions to long-term problems.

"We're fooling ourselves if we think otherwise," said Hoffman, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "The only way to get a large infusion of money into the racetracks is other forms of gambling."

Bromwell, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, termed the recommended assistance "a Band-Aid, because next year we're going to be debating slots at the track."

Nevertheless, the commission recommended more aid to the horse-racing industry than the most optimistic racing devotee could have desired. In addition to $10 million from the lottery primarily for purses, the commission agreed to suggest the following measures:

Continue the reduction of the wagering tax from 0.5 percent to 0.32 percent (a savings to the industry of about $1 million).

Continue distributing money remaining in the special-fund account at year-end to support the Maryland Million (about $500,000).

Continue giving the industry $500,000 from uncashed pari-mutuel tickets.

Suggest to the lottery that it introduce a game with a horse-racing theme that would benefit the horse industry.

Urge the legislature to increase funding for the Agricultural Land Preservation Program, a portion specifically for horse-farm preservation.

Allow the Maryland Racing Commission to write rules for telephone-account wagering so that Maryland residents can bet on thoroughbred races at home.

Also, the commission directed Conti, secretary of the Department of Licensing and Regulation, to authorize a study of the feasibility of a partnership between the Maryland Stadium Authority and the racetracks and of building a racetrack to centralize thoroughbred and harness racing in the state.

The commission's recommendations will be included in a report to the governor and legislative leaders to be submitted by Nov. 1. The report could be a blueprint for action in the next legislative session.

Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, said he is reasonably optimistic -- given that several influential delegates and senators sit on the commission -- of legislative support for the recommendations.

However, he said, he also agrees with Hoffman and Bromwell that the recommendations do not solve the long-term problem of the industry. The problem, he said, is that tracks in Delaware and West Virginia have "competitive tools" that tracks in Maryland do not. The tools, of course, are slot machines.

Dennis Dowd, president of Bally's Maryland Inc., which owns the Ocean Downs harness track, said the commission's work is another indication of a widespread desire to assist the state's thoroughbred and standardbred industries.

Most of the money from the state would probably be used to increase purses -- the money paid to top-finishing horses -- and keep them in line with those in slots-rich Delaware.

Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said an additional $10 million for purses -- if divided the same as this year's $5 million -- would elevate purses of non-stakes thoroughbred races from about $160,000 a day to about $180,000.

"Theoretically, that would raise us above the current Delaware levels," Wright said. "But then Delaware could always come back and raise theirs."

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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