Del. eyes doubling of slots at tracks De Francis says move 'terrible' for Maryland

January 29, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

A bill that would double the number of slot machines permitted at Delaware racetracks was approved yesterday by the state's House of Representatives.

Reaction in Maryland was swift -- and predictable.

"It's just terrible," said Joe De Francis, the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park who covets slots at Maryland tracks. "This is taking a bad situation and just making it worse."

Delaware's three tracks have offered slot machines since December 1995. Bettors have wagered a staggering $6 billion on 1,000 machines at Delaware Park (thoroughbred track), 1,000 at Dover Downs and 580 at Harrington Raceway (harness tracks).

Now, that state's General Assembly has begun action that would allow 2,000 machines at each track. Current law allows the tracks to operate 1,000 machines apiece.

After yesterday's passage in the House, the Senate is expected to act today. Some urgency exists because the General Assembly begins a six-week recess tomorrow. Gov. Thomas Carper supports the bill.

It would increase the state's take of slots profits by decreasing the allocation to the vendors who lease the machines to the tracks. But most important to racing interests in Maryland, the bill would not change the division of profits to the tracks (about 50 percent) and to racing purses (about 12 percent).

So far, the machines have provided track owners about $254 million and increased purses by about $55 million. That success threatens other tracks in the region, including Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs (harness tracks in Maryland) and Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said that, "Without question, Delaware's purses will go up significantly." He said they soon could nearly match New York's, which lead the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions.

Also, Capps said, Delaware Park could continue upgrading its stakes programs. It might even be able to offer races, such as the Arlington international turf festival, so rich that they would attract the best horses not only in this country, but also the world, Capps said.

"You reach a point where you've got so much money you can't help but invest in things like that," he said.

Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the Maryland Senate, said that more slots in Delaware probably would not increase support by lawmakers for slots in Maryland. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's adamant stance against slots is one reason, Miller said.

Another is "the state's strong commitment to continue to bolster the racing industry with $10 million in relief assistance," Miller said. The governor proposed that assistance in this year's budget.

Nevertheless, Del. Howard P. Rawlings said he plans next week to introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow more than 10,000 video-lottery terminals (similar to slot machines) at racetracks, off-track betting sites and two "tourist destination centers," one in Western Maryland and one on the Eastern Shore.

The amendment would not require the governor's signature, but would require two-thirds support in the House and Senate and dTC then a majority of voters in a referendum.

Owners of the tourist centers would have to invest at least $100 million and guarantee employment for 800 to 1,000 workers, Rawlings said. He said he envisions developments such as large hotels and conference centers.

"If Maryland doesn't wake up," Rawlings said, "we're going to continue sending tens of millions of dollars to Delaware." He was referring to the amount Marylanders drop into Delaware's slots.

De Francis has said repeatedly that Maryland loses tax revenue and other benefits whenever a Marylander bets out of state. Yesterday, he said everyone in Delaware profiting from slots -- the state, tracks, vendors, horsemen and citizens -- must be laughing at Maryland and its continued stance against the machines.

"I think they were laughing at us already," De Francis said. "Now they must be rolling in the aisles."

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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