Commission rejects bid by Bally's to construct off-track betting parlor Harness industry loses plea for own simulcasts

November 06, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In a victory for the state's thoroughbred racetracks, the Maryland Racing Commission defeated yesterday requests by harness racing interests to open an off-track betting parlor in Hagerstown and to conduct their own simulcasts of thoroughbred races.

Rejected was the proposal by Bally's Inc., owner of Ocean Downs, to build and operate an off-track betting parlor in Hagerstown.

By majority vote, the commission also rejected the harness tracks' request to conduct simulcasting independently of the Maryland Jockey Club, the governing body of the thoroughbred tracks in the state.

The decisions could lead to legal action by the harness interests, which include Bally's and Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc., owner of Rosecroft Raceway.

Maryland Jockey Club officials were elated by the outcome, which maintains the status quo in simulcasting. The harness tracks lost their bid to televise out-of-state thoroughbred races without the consent of -- and without paying a premium to -- the state's principal thoroughbred tracks, Pimlico and Laurel Park.

"Obviously, the result is correct," jockey club general counsel Marty Jacobs said. "The decision on both scores is consistent with the law."

"We're obviously very pleased," jockey club President Joe DeFrancis said. "To allow Standardbreds to import thoroughbred signals unilaterally was not in the best interests of horse racing in Maryland.

"One message was loud and clear. I liked that the commission appeared to be unanimous in that it would like to see the industries resolve through negotiations what is in the best interests of the Maryland racing fan."

Harness officials indicated they may appeal the decision in court.

"We're regrouping to see what other avenues there are to pursue," Cloverleaf President Gerald Brittingham said.

Dennis Dowd, chief executive officer of Bally's, said: "I have to laugh to keep from crying" when asked about the rejection of the OTB parlor.

"I believe Ocean Downs is so far away from Laurel and Pimlico that it doesn't impact them. Currently, they're not getting any money out of Ocean Downs.

"Building in Hagerstown would have allowed us to hire 50 to 75 people there in construction and employment. Their objection was based on the fact that the only benefit was to Hilton [hotels, parent company of Bally's]. I found that strange," Dowd said.

"The best interests of Maryland racing" was the central topic in the commission's discussion of the two issues.

Chairman William Furey strongly recommended turning down the harness, or Standardbred, proposals despite a state attorney general's opinion that said the simulcasting law was ambiguous enough to allow them to be considered.

"We hoped they could resolve these things among themselves," Furey said.

"But I believe it would be unfair, inequitable and unreasonable to allow Standardbred interests to input signals unilaterally."

A business plan by commissioner Dr. Vincent Palumbo that included a 60-day period for the factions to negotiate was heard but never reached a motion.

Furey also recommended rejecting approval of the OTB parlor because, "I see no benefit to any part of the industry" and because, he said, it would draw business from the OTB parlor in Western Maryland, the Cracked Claw, 25 miles away.

"I can't see that this would enhance anybody but the owner of the facility," he said.

Commissioner Carol McGowan argued that more competition would force the OTB parlors to improve, and voted with the minority.

Talks regarding the monetary split in the simulcasting arrangement between the thoroughbreds and Rosecroft are continuing.

Their "facilities use" agreement expires Nov. 15 and has been extended two months after a compromise arranged by Eugene Conti, secretary of the Department of Labor and Licensing.

Under the terms of the agreement, Rosecroft, which is struggling for survival, receives 70 percent (up from the original 55 percent) of the revenue from night thoroughbred simulcasting, and 30 percent goes to the thoroughbred tracks.

If it expires, the harness and thoroughbred tracks would operate simulcasts independently.

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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