It's coming down to wire for racing

January 24, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

WHATEVER makes Joe De Francis uncomfortable, this governor is for."

That remark, from a veteran of the Annapolis scene, illustrates the racing industry's precarious situation in the State House.

Joseph De Francis, owner and operator of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, is in the governor's dog house.

In the last election, Mr. De Francis funneled huge amounts of money from racing allies to GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey. It earned him the enmity of Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening.

Now it is payback time. There's no money in the 1999 budget for the racing industry. Last year, there was $8.5 million to boost purses and $1.5 million for promotion.

Gone is support from ranking Democratic lawmakers, too. Mr. De Francis and friends backed the wrong pony.

Mr. Glendening won't forget such betrayal.

As governor, though, Mr. Glendening cannot write off the industry. It is a valuable state asset and an economic engine that generates thousands of jobs and many spinoff benefits.

The Preakness is Maryland's No. 1 sporting event and a giant payday for Baltimore.

Yet without a strong state partnership, racing is in trouble. Tracks in West Virginia and Delaware are getting rich on slot machines. Another competitor debuts next month: A Pennsylvania-based system that will air horse racing on satellite television and accept telephone wagers.

Betting dollars will flow even more rapidly out of Maryland.

Without state aid to subsidize purses, trainers, owners and jockeys will have few incentives to patronize Maryland tracks.

Old, rambling plant

Pimlico could become an early victim. The track loses money every day it is open, except for the Preakness and Saturday racing. It is an old, rambling plant badly in need of expensive renovation.

The track occupies a pivotal spot in Northwest Baltimore. It is a key buffer for one of the city's better neighborhoods, Mount Washington, and for the Sinai-Levindale hospital complex. If Pimlico closes, the blight and crime in neighborhoods to the south and west could spread.

So it's not just a matter of helping a private business. It's a matter of bolstering an industry that plays a key role in local economies and neighborhood stability.

The governor's Smart Growth policy is designed to help stabilize older neighborhoods. Shutting down Pimlico would violate that policy by weakening established communities.

A state industry

What kind of jobs-preservation policy would it be to wreck a Maryland industry? What message would that send about the state's business climate?

What kind of economic-development policy would it be to put Pimlico's owner in such a squeeze that he would feel compelled to sell the Preakness?

Some allies of the governor are peddling another idea: Having the state build a racetrack to consolidate thoroughbred operations at a modern plant. It's a pipe dream, based on the governor's desire to punish Mr. De Francis.

Any move in this direction would be a signal to the track owner that he'd better get out before the state drives him out.

But it probably won't happen. Mr. Glendening is, indeed, enjoying Mr. De Francis' discomfiture. Yet he's also indicating a willingness to help the industry.

One intriguing suggestion comes from the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, a group that has the governor's ear.

It seeks a four-year marketing/purse-enhancement investment plan and money to build four modern off-track betting facilities. The cash would come from lottery proceeds -- a logical tie-in.

A few months from now, after some more De Francis-baiting, lawmakers and the governor likely will agree to underwrite purses -- since the track owner would not get a penny.

Telephone wagers

If he's smart, the governor would let the Maryland Racing Commission finally promulgate rules for telephone wagering accounts. Without such rules, Pennsylvania tracks will have a clear advantage in what is likely to be a booming at-home wagering business. This could be a new revenue stream for racing, diminishing talk of slots at Maryland tracks.

Yes, Mr. Glendening has the power to punish his enemies. But he's got to take care not to damage others whose livelihoods depend on racing. The last thing this governor wants is to be remembered as the guy who ended racing at historic Pimlico.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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