Keep costs low. Take full advantage of innovations in telephone and Internet betting. Make your racetrack welcoming and pack it with the latest in "virtual reality" games, batting cages and other amusements. Most important: Think outside the box.
That is William M. Rickman's prescription for the ailing Maryland horse racing industry, one he hopes to fill in the form of a new two-breed track to be built in Western Maryland.
At the encouragement of Maryland House Speaker and Western Maryland Democrat Casper R. Taylor Jr., Rickman has begun circulating a brief written description of his plans for the track and scouting for a site in Allegany County.
Rickman all but ruled out one location, the shuttered Fairgo track outside Cumberland, as too small. But he said he thinks the region offers the best opportunity in the state.
He said he hopes the General Assembly will pass legislation in the few weeks remaining in its current session to legalize a competitor to the
Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the state's only two major thoroughbred tracks, Pimlico and Laurel Park.
"We'd love to get that this year," Rickman, a Montgomery County builder and president of Delaware Park racetrack, said in a telephone interview yesterday -- providing some of the first public details of a project he has pursued behind the scenes.
With legislative approval, the track could be up and running in 12 to 18 months, he said.
Taylor said Rickman's plan would help to create "much-needed jobs and an increased tax base" for the region. Rickman wouldn't discuss particular sites he is considering, but Taylor said three or four are along Interstate 68 near Rocky Gap State Park.
But, Taylor said, Rickman "wants to be sure [Allegany] county is friendly to his pursuit. He doesn't want to get in where he's not invited."
Early indications are good. Yesterday, the county's commissioners wrote a letter to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees saying, "We strongly support and urge you to enact" legislation permitting the track.
Current law, passed in the 1940s to protect racetracks temporarily taken over by the federal War Department, prohibits the state from granting racing days to any full-size, one-mile thoroughbred track other than Pimlico and Laurel.
The amendment needed to grant the new authority is to be included in the so-called Maryland Million bill pending in the House of Delegates. That legislation extends authorization for use of $500,000 in uncashed parimutuel tickets for marketing, purses and promotional activities related to that race.
Rickman said he envisions a small track -- with a capacity of no more than 5,000 patrons -- that would offer harness and thoroughbred racing on concentric ovals.
Live racing would be conducted in short, annual meets, probably in the summer. The rest of the year, the operation would survive by taking bets on televised, or "simulcast," races run at other tracks around the country.
The operation would include at least two off-track betting parlors controlled by Rickman's track and designed for the purpose. That would be different from the oft-maligned strategy of the Maryland Jockey Club, which strikes deals with restaurants and bars to open betting areas within their businesses. "I don't think that's the way to do it," Rickman said.
The track would cost at least $10 million to build, and each off-track parlor would add another $2 million to $3 million, he said. He wouldn't mind some government assistance, he said, but hasn't asked for it and is not counting on any. The operation could create 100 full-time jobs and 200 part-time jobs, Rickman estimated.
The project has its doubters. Alan Foreman, an attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and a director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said recent history has shown that tracks opened away from big population areas don't fare well. Horse owners and trainers in Central Maryland might be reluctant to truck the animals west.
"Personally, if I were to build a racetrack in Maryland, I wouldn't build it in Western Maryland," he said. "To me it's a questionable call."
Challenges for project
Richard Wilke, executive in residence at the University of Louisville and an industry consultant, said if Rickman can keep costs low, a track could survive on simulcast income -- though it wouldn't be easy.
"I don't want to necessarily say it will work. But the advent of full-card simulcasting has made it possible for tracks in smaller markets to do quite well," Wilke said.
Rickman is convinced he can beat the hex that has made nearly every other recent attempt to open a racetrack in the country a failure. He thinks he can do it without the slot machine revenue that has powered his Delaware Park to regional prominence, and that Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. De Francis insists his tracks need to survive.