Many readers don't want to foot this bill

On Horse Racing

July 04, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

If readers of The Sun, at least those who responded to our call for comments, had the final say on the Maryland Jockey Club's $60 million improvement plan, the plan would be in trouble. Although they support track improvements, most don't want to help pay for them.

Of the 50 readers who sent e-mails or letters by fax, 29 disapprove of the plan mainly because nearly half of the $60 million would be financed largely by a 1.5 percent increase in takeout on Pimlico and Laurel Park races. Eight respondents favor the plan, and 13 come down somewhere in between.

"If this increase takes place, I would encourage all horseplayers to stop betting Maryland racing," writes Jay Fickes, a professional gambler from Ocean Pines. "MJC be damned. The fact is, with all the increased technology [Internet wagering, satellite signals, etc.] we can find plenty of action elsewhere."

Joe De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, has proposed that it spend $32.5 million and finance the remaining $27.5 million of the plan with revenue bonds that would be repaid mostly by bettors. That would be accomplished by a temporary increase in takeout, the portion withheld from every bet for taxes, purses and track owners.

The increase would last for about 10 years, De Francis predicts, and would apply to wagers placed in Maryland on races at Pimlico and Laurel. When bettors in other states wager on a Pimlico or Laurel race, the additional 1.5 percent would remain in their states, presumably divided between horsemen and track owners.

De Francis stresses that the increase would apply only to 30 percent of his tracks' handle, that portion wagered on local races. Customers bet the remaining 70 percent on out-of-state races. Those bets would not be affected.

Any change in takeout would require passage of a state law. On Tuesday, House and Senate leaders will conduct a public hearing on the plan before sending their comments to the governor. Final approval rests with him.

De Francis maintains that the increase would have little effect on betting. Some gamblers might turn to racetracks with lower takeouts, he says, but not enough to decrease significantly the wagering on Pimlico and Laurel races.

Readers disagree.

"Horseplayers are not stupid," writes Robert West, a bettor from Fallston. "They want the best return they can get on their money. If Maryland increases its takeout by 1.5 percent, I think it will price itself out of a lot of business."

"To even seriously suggest such a `solution' to any racing issue demonstrates an almost total lack of understanding of why racing is in its present sad predicament," writes Glenn E. Bushel, a resident of Baltimore. "If you really want to raise more money, and simultaneously promote interest in racing, lower the take and publicize what you have that other betting does not: a legitimate chance to win if you expend the effort."

Quint Kessenich, a racing fan from Baltimore, plans to protestthe proposal by boycotting the summer highlight of Maryland thoroughbred racing, the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash on July 17 at Laurel Park.

"A small, meaningful gesture to show the Maryland Jockey Club how underappreciated the customers have been made to feel," Kessenich writes. "The Maryland Jockey Club doesn't understand that unhappy customers have more options now than they've ever had."

Writes Harold Schwartz, a casual bettor and horse owner from Columbia, "I agree something has to be done, but not at my expense. The bettor pays his share at the betting window, concession stands, gift shop, programs, parking, entrance fee, etc."

Paul Hirsimaki, a gambler and horse owner also from Columbia, writes, "The Maryland Jockey Club proposal is unfairly lucrative for them. They would get $60,000,000 value from spending only $32,500,000: a windfall gain of $27,500,000.

"If the proposal flies, then the increase in takeout should be followed by a second phase intended to reimburse bettors. Phase 2 should reduce MJC's share of the take below current levels until the $27,500,000 plus interest is returned to bettors through increased payoffs."

Michael Baca, a former resident of Laurel who now lives in Louisiana, speculates about De Francis' motives in proposing the increased takeout.

"There is not a racetrack manager in the country who isn't keenly aware that his hard-core customers are strongly averse to such a tax hike," Baca writes. "One has to suspect that Joe De Francis knows how upset his customers will be.

"One must therefore suspect at least a little that Mr. De Francis is attempting to use disgruntled customers to send Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening a message: `If we had slots, then Mr. De Francis wouldn't need to be taxing us like this.' "

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