Racing aid may end up being knocked off-track Ownership questions concern in Annapolis

January 12, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Keyser contributed to this article.

News of a possible change in the ownership of Maryland's thoroughbred racetracks may complicate industry-backed efforts to win money and concessions from the Maryland General Assembly, which begins its three-month session on Wednesday.

Racing industry leaders, many of whom have given up for now hopes of procuring slot machines, nonetheless would like to see passage of other forms of aid. Several multimillion-dollar recommendations are under consideration by the governor and others.

Passage of any measure was made more complicated by revelations last week that the estate of Jack Kent Cooke is selling notes that could convey a minority-ownership stake in Laurel and Pimlico. The late Washington Redskins owner acquired the rights as part of a loan and letter-of-credit package he provided the tracks' ownership group, led by Joe De Francis.

The sale could take years to accomplish, but it has attracted the attention of casino interests, who may gamble on the eventual legalization of slots or some other lucrative gambling in the state.

"The situation has become muddied because of the death of Mr. Cooke," said Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the state Senate.

A significant expansion of gaming, such as slot machines, was already unlikely because of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's opposition and the statewide elections this fall, said Miller.

"We're not certain what the long run is going to bring, but any major change in benefits to the tracks from enhanced gaming is going to have to wait until at least 1999 and until the ownership is clarified," Miller said.

Even lesser proposals to help the state's breeding and racing industry could be set back by the unsettled ownership situation, Miller said. But he said he hopes some stopgap aid will be approved.

Supporters of De Francis speculated privately last week that the disclosure of the possible sale of the Cooke interests could have been timed to disrupt the industry's legislative agenda.

Glendening is expected to include in his proposed budget this year some form of aid based on recommendations made last year by a study commission headed by Eugene A. Conti Jr., secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The commission recommended $11.5 million in legislative aid for the thoroughbred and harness industries -- nearly double last DTC year's legislative grants. It also recommended expanded telephone betting, a joint state-track marketing effort and other measures.

"The governor currently has before him a series of recommendations on ways to help racing. Obviously, he's committed to helping the industry," said Glendening spokesman Ray Feldman.

Alan Foreman, an attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and executive director of the multi-state Thoroughbred Horsemen's Associations, said the new uncertainty at the racetracks comes at a bad time.

"It is a time when we were trying to move ahead," Foreman said.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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