DEPENDING on who you are talking to, William Rickman Jr. is either a peddler of slot machines eager to bring his wares to Maryland or a lover of horses who wants to buy a racetrack in his home state.
Both points of view could be correct. Mr. Rickman is the mastermind behind the drive to legalize slot machines at Delaware tracks. He has also has become the apple of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening's eye. What a jarring irony.
Mr. Rickman's Delaware Park racetrack has turned into a financial gold mine. Since slots play began there in 1995, Mr. Rickman's track has reaped $312 million -- and paid out to horsemen a mere $62 million in purses. Even after paying off overhead and making improvements, that leaves the owner with a very fat profit.
Mr. Rickman has suggested, for starters, building a track in Cumberland in Western Maryland. Previously, he has tried to buy the state's two harness tracks and its two thoroughbred tracks -- without success.
His latest proposal holds far more promise of materializing.
There is a problem, though: Cumberland is too far from population centers to lure enough bettors or quality horses to make a big profit on an investment of tens of millions of dollars.
With live summer racing and off-track betting year-round, you might keep losses to a minimum.
But once Mr. Rickman becomes a player on the Maryland racing scene, he's likely to follow the same scenario as in Delaware: A determined effort to legalize slots at the tracks.
The irony is that Maryland's "No Slots, No Way" governor wants to throw open Maryland's doors to Mr. Rickman. By the time Mr. Rickman gets his track open and presses for slot machines, Mr. Glendening's term would be over. Then it's someone else's problem.
What is on the governor's mind is wrecking the racing fortunes of Joseph De Francis, the owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses.
That's why the governor is proposing "competition" in the racing industry.
And that's why he has sent word through his racing commission chairman to do what it takes to drive Mr. De Francis out of business.
But Mr. Rickman's entry on the scene might not work out the way Mr. Glendening thinks.
First, a track in Cumberland would help, not hurt, Mr. De Francis.
Second, Mr. Rickman's financial clout could make a big difference in Maryland's slots debate.
Third, the powerful speaker of the House, Casper Taylor of Cumberland, is a longtime proponent of bringing gambling to Western Maryland to stimulate growth. He'd work assiduously over the years to help a Cumberland track gain slots.
Backers of Mr. De Francis have reacted with panic at the prospect of Mr. Rickman gaining a Maryland foothold. He might, indeed, be a wolf in sheep's clothing who wants to monopolize mid-Atlantic racing by buying out Mr. De Francis.
But a Cumberland track does Mr. De Francis' ovals no harm. Summer racing is a red-ink proposition at Laurel. So if a Cumberland track held its live racing in August, Mr. De Francis could close Laurel that month -- saving overhead expenses and building his off-track betting profits to boost purses for the fall meet.
Meanwhile, Mr. De Francis, also a slots proponent, could let Mr. Rickman take the lead in advocating slot machines. Mr. De Francis isn't a popular guy in Annapolis these days.
Why would Mr. Rickman want to set up slots that would crimp his profits at Delaware Park? Because the potential in Maryland is so enormous.
Delaware Park would still pump out handsome slots profits. Meanwhile, a Western Maryland slots center could draw gamblers from a totally different market: parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- particularly the Pittsburgh area. If Cumberland establishes itself as an entertainment and leisure-time destination, the audience for Mr. Rickman's slots/racing complex could balloon.
Thus, Mr. Glendening's scheming could backfire. Anyone seeking to build a new race track in Maryland is doing so in hopes that one day slots will be legalized. Why else would you spend millions to establish a marginal business?
And if slots do find their way onto the grounds of Maryland's racetracks, the biggest winner of all would be none other than Mr. Glendening's enemy: Joe De Francis.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.
Pub Date: 3/28/99