$10M infusion for Md. racing moves closer

De Francis plans draw criticism

Glendening could free funds soon

July 07, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron and Tom Keyser | Thomas W. Waldron and Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Legislative leaders moved closer yesterday to spending $10 million to boost purses at Maryland racetracks, but raised questions and complaints about track owners' plans for upgrading their facilities.

Some lawmakers called the improvement plans vague and unrealistic, and they questioned a proposal by the owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park to reduce bettors' winnings to finance some of the refurbishing.

But the lawmakers opted to postpone debate on those issues, which could free up at least some of the purse money this summer.

The $10 million will go to horse owners and breeders, not to the owners of Maryland's four privately owned tracks.

The vote by the Legislative Policy Committee, made up of ranking senators and delegates, clears the way for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to release the money.

He is expected to release half the funds soon and the second half after he sees the plans being implemented, sources said.

"The governor wants to really get better marketing, better management and real improvements to the infrastructure at the tracks," said Michael Morrill, a Glendening spokesman. "This plan is a good start."

The state has given $20 million to the racing industry through subsidies, tax breaks and other assistance over the last two years, most of it going to boost purses.

The payments are intended to keep Maryland tracks competitive with those in Delaware and West Virginia, where slot machines subsidize horse racing and have dramatically increased purses.

Under legislation approved by the General Assembly this year, the state will pump in another $10 million. The money was contingent on the track owners developing plans for improving their facilities, as well as their marketing and management.

The Maryland Jockey Club has laid out plans over the next five years for $60 million worth of improvements at Pimlico and Laurel and off-track betting operations.

Under that plan, the tracks would reduce winnings paid to certain bettors by an additional 1.5 percent to pay for many of the improvements. Such a move would require the legislature to change the law next year and could prove controversial.

"Essentially, you're taking more from the bettor to pay for this improvement," said Del. John A. Hurson, the House majority leader. "I certainly don't want to go down that road, at least not yet."

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it made sense to have the patrons of the track pay for a portion of the physical improvements.

"My personal belief is that the people that participate at the track, as well as the owners, should be responsible for funding the improvements rather than the taxpayers, who don't have any interest in racing," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Only one legislator on the 26-member policy committee, Sen. Leo E. Green, voted against recommending that the purse money be released.

Green expressed concerns about the future of the thoroughbred training facility at the former Bowie racetrack, which is located in his Prince George's County district.

Joe De Francis, controlling stockholder of the jockey club, applauded yesterday's action by the legislators.

"We're extremely delighted they voted almost unanimously to recommend to the governor that he go ahead and release the purse money," De Francis said.

De Francis said he expects considerable debate over his financing plan when the General Assembly meets next January.

But he stressed that he and his partners have committed to paying $32.5 million of the $60 million. That, he said, is about as far as his company "can stretch the rubber band."

De Francis' plan calls for increasing the takeout on some track bets. Takeout is that portion of every wager withheld for state taxes, purses and the track owners.

Currently, the takeout on Pimlico and Laurel Park races is 17 percent on win, place and show bets, 19 percent on exactas and daily doubles, and 25 percent on trifectas, pick threes and superfectas.

An additional 1.5 percent in each category would make Maryland's takeout one of the highest in the country.

De Francis has proposed increasing the takeout only on bets placed in Maryland on Pimlico and Laurel races, which account for about 30 percent of the state's total wagers.

The remaining 70 percent is bet on simulcast races at out-of-state tracks.

Area race schedule

Rosecroft Raceway: Live racing Thursday through Saturday, post time 7: 20 p.m. Simulcasts Tuesday through Sunday. 301-567-4000.

Bally's at Ocean Downs: Summer season runs through Sept. 4. Live racing Wednesday through Sunday, post time 7: 15 p.m. Simulcasts daily. Exceptions: No live racing tomorrow, July 15, Aug. 12, Aug. 19, Aug. 25, Aug. 26, Sept. 1 or Sept. 2. 410-641-0600.

Delaware Park: Live racing Saturday through Wednesday, post time 12: 45 p.m. Simulcasts daily. 302-994-2521.

Pub Date: 7/07/99

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