Joe De Francis calls it "a big, gray cloud that casts a large, dark shadow."
Tim Capps says it's rapidly growing into the region's "900-pound gorilla."
Good lord, is Godzilla loose? Not exactly. They're talking about Delaware Park. Silly me. I just thought it was a great place to spend a day at the races.
Yesterday, Delaware Park opened for its 61st season of horse racing. And, of course, we all know why Capps and De Francis are concerned: slot machines.
Love them or loathe them, they're the money machines driving racing in Maryland's neighbor state. (If you doubt that, note Delaware Park's telephone number. It's not 800-41-RACES. It's 800-41-SLOTS.)
With daily purses approaching $200,000 and a stakes program worth $3.5 million, Delaware Park has lured trainers such as Carl Nafzger, Frank Passero Jr., Phil Gleaves, Charlie Assimakopoulos, Randy Schulhofer and Noel Hickey.
"I can really feel the anticipation of this meeting more than any since I've been here," said Chris Sobocinski, who has worked 10 years at Delaware Park, currently in the publicity department.
"It's the mix of horsemen on the backstretch. It's the stakes schedule. You just walk around the place, and you see that a whole host of things have been done. They've made improvements galore."
How this will affect Maryland remains to be seen.
"I'm not an alarmist when it comes to Delaware Park," said Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But they've just got a competitive advantage others don't have right now.
"I see them getting stronger and stronger while everybody else in the region is either stagnant or sliding. It's an insidious process. You're getting hurt by razor cuts, not slashes."
The $10 million state subsidy approved last week by the Mayland General Assembly is the Band-Aid slowing the bleeding. Of that grant, nearly $5.6 million will enrich purses at the state's thoroughbred tracks. Beginning Thursday, purses at Pimlico will increase about $15,000 per day to $165,000 to $170,000.
"The state saved us," said King Leatherbury, who is stabling some horses at Delaware Park anyway. "Maryland trainers have less incentive to go to Delaware this year. Our purses are certainly comparable to theirs."
The future may tell another story. The Delaware General Assembly passed legislation last month that permits 2,000 slot machines at each of the state's tracks. Currently, Delaware Park and Dover Downs have 1,000 each, and Harrington Raceway has 580.
However, none of the tracks plans on doubling its machines anytime soon, said Michael Strine, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Finance. He said that in coming months Harrington plans on adding 120, and Delaware Park and Dover Downs 200 to 400 each.
Delaware Park will race until Nov. 8 -- Saturday through Tuesday until May 16, and then Saturday through Wednesday. Post time is 12: 45 p.m.
You can bet simulcasts day and night seven days a week. And you can play the slots until your hands cramp up. For casino hours, you can call the track. Again, that number is 800-41-SLOTS.
The Maryland Jockey Club and Bally's Maryland, which owns Ocean Downs, reached an agreement recently that resulted in Ocean Downs' simulcasting thoroughbred races again.
"We're getting our thoroughbred players back," said Dennis Dowd, Bally's Maryland president.
He said daily handle has doubled from $35,000 to about $65,000 or $70,000. The deal benefits both sides, he said. De Francis, president of the jockey club, agreed.
"For the first time since Bally's came to Maryland," De Francis said, "we're working in a peaceful and cooperative manner."
The Maryland Horse Breeders Association held its annual rTC awards dinner Friday. Receiving awards were owners and breeders of these 1997 Maryland-bred champions:
Smoke Glacken, Horse of the Year and 3-year-old male champion; K.O. Punch, 2-year-old male champion; Maragold Princess, 2-year-old filly champion; Dixie Flag, 3-year-old filly champion; Royal Haven, older male champion; Chip, older female champion; Awad, turf champion, and Teb's Bend, steeplechase champion. Also, Two Punch, sire of the year; Northern Sting, broodmare of the year, and Ryehill Farm, breeder of the year.
Pub Date: 4/19/98