Horse track license up for bid

Two owners to apply to build new site in Western Maryland

Rickman vs. De Francis

February 02, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Two titans of the region's horse-racing industry, William Rickman Jr. and Joseph A. De Francis, will clash over the license to build a horse track in Western Maryland.

Rickman, a Montgomery County developer and owner of the Delaware Park horse track and slots emporium near Wilmington, Del., has said for months he wants to build a track in Allegany County. He said he will complete a deal tomorrow to buy 112 acres midway between Hagerstown and Cumberland -- without an option in case his bid for the license fails.

"We want to show people we're serious," Rickman said. "This is not a bluff."

De Francis entered the fray late. As head of the company operating Pimlico and Laurel Park, the state's major thoroughbred tracks, De Francis said that if a new track is to be built in Western Maryland, it should be in cooperation, not competition, with the rest of racing in the state.

De Francis said that a Rickman operation would siphon business from tracks in Central Maryland already subsidized by state grants for purses, the money paid to owners of competing horses.

The main reason for those grants has been Rickman's Delaware Park, De Francis says. Slot machines in Delaware have been so profitable that purses at its harness and thoroughbred tracks have risen dramatically, creating stiff competition for bettors and Maryland horses. "That is absolutely insane," De Francis said of the prospect of a Rickman track in Maryland. "I would have to ask what the slots king of Delaware is doing coming into Maryland. I find that very curious."

Rickman, in partnership with his father, William Rickman Sr., and De Francis, on behalf of the Maryland Jockey Club, said they will submit applications for the track license to the Maryland Racing Commission by its March 2 deadline. No other potential applicants have surfaced.

The commission, which regulates horse racing in the state, would have until October to award -- or not award -- the license for a new track.

"The commission would have to be convinced that it has long-term viability and that it's going to be beneficial to Maryland racing and the local community," said John Franzone, the racing commission chairman.

Leaders of Maryland's racing community say privately that a new track in remote Western Maryland makes little economic sense. Over the past three years, Maryland lawmakers have approved more than $26 million in horse-racing aid, mainly for purses.

"We have a core of racing now that can't fund itself," one racing leader said. "What do we need another racetrack in Western Maryland for?"

The most vocal, and politically powerful, champion of the track is House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

A Cumberland resident, Taylor says a horse track in Western Maryland would create jobs, expand the tax base, complement agriculture, promote tourism and extend the racing tradition that once embraced tracks in Cumberland and Hagerstown.

The idea of another horse track in Maryland -- the state has five -- emerged after Gov. Parris N. Glendening's re-election in 1998 over his Republican opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Glendening said the state's racing industry needed competition to shake it loose from years of stagnation.

Many believed Glendening's comment was meant to punish De Francis, who supported Glendening's opponents. Glendening opposed slot machines in Maryland; De Francis wanted them at racetracks.

That seed of an idea eventually took root not as a track in, for example, White Marsh to compete with Pimlico, but in Western Maryland. De Francis is one of the contenders to win the license to build that track.

"More competition is the last thing this industry needs," De Francis said, pointing to recently constructed sports venues in Maryland, thriving telephone- and computer-betting services operated by out-of-state companies, and slot machines at racetracks in West Virginia and Delaware.

Rickman proposes building as many as five off-track betting parlors statewide, not only to compete with Maryland Jockey Club OTBs but also to subsidize his proposed track off Interstate 68.

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