Do politics play role in sport? You bet

On Horse Racing

March 19, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Which horse will win the race is far from the only intrigue involved in horse racing. Politics and making law may be the greatest intrigues of all.

In Annapolis, during the legislative session under way until April 10, legislators ponder bills related to horse racing. Well, some legislators do. Many could care less about horse racing, if you want to know the truth. And some who care about the sport don't understand its underlying complexities.

Simulcasting, sharing revenues, funding purses, financing bonds, soothing opposing factions. Those are a few of the complicated issues that command attention but have little or nothing to do with which horse wins the sixth race at Laurel Park.

Right now, lawmakers are trying to make sense of bills that would allow racetrack owners to renovate their facilities, increase the amount of money withheld from wagers, spend taxpayers' money to boost purses and repeal a strange law linked to the otherwise forgettable time of 6: 15 p.m.

The big bill would authorize the state to sell bonds that would finance improvements at Pimlico and Laurel Park, the major thoroughbred tracks, and Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County.

According to Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, the bonds would generate $35 million for improvements to the two tracks under his control and more than $9 million for improvements to Rosecroft Raceway. Track managements would spend that money within five years.

Now if the state, in the form of the Maryland Economic Development Corp., would sell the bonds, then someone or something would have to repay the bonds and provide interest payments to bond holders over the 15-year term of the bonds. That would be, in part, the bettors -- if the state approves an increase in takeout (a percentage withheld from every wager).

De Francis said the bill calls for increases from 17 percent to 18 percent for bets involving one horse (such as win, place or show), from 19 percent to 21 percent for bets involving two horses (such as exactas and daily doubles) and from 25 percent to 25.75 percent for bets involving three or more horses (such as trifectas and superfectas).

Those increases would apply to bets on races at Pimlico and Laurel Park, and that additional money would go into a fund to repay the bonds. Also, Rosecroft Raceway would contribute 1.5 percent from its mutuel pools into the fund; Rosecroft would not increase its takeout of 18 percent, 20 percent and 26 percent, according to De Francis.

He said he didn't know exactly how much money that would raise, but others familiar with the process estimated the annual total at about $2.5 million. Another $2 million annually for bond repayment would come from something called the special fund. The primary source of the money that goes into the special fund are winning mutuel tickets never cashed by bettors.

De Francis said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the bill will be approved so he can proceed with his $65-million plan for renovating Pimlico and Laurel Park, upgrading off-track betting parlors and building new OTBs in populated areas around the state.

He said he is also hopeful that a separate bill providing $10 million in supplements for harness and thoroughbred purses will be approved.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said that he, too, is optimistic that a bill would be approved so that track improvements could continue. He also said that legislators might approve purse supplements for more than just the coming year. The supplements help Maryland racing keep pace with racing in Delaware subsidized by massive profits from slot machines.

As with most everything in horse racing, especially in Maryland, nothing is simple, and trouble boils beneath the surface.

In this case, not everyone in racing likes the idea of money from the special fund going to pay off bonds for track improvements. And some wonder about a bill that authorizes the state to sell bonds with 15-year terms when the funding mechanism behind those bonds is assured for only four.

That is, the revenue-sharing agreement between the managements of Rosecroft Raceway and the Maryland Jockey Club (and the two sides' breeders and horsemen) is valid only until 2003. The current agreement calls for a division of profits consisting of 80 percent to the thoroughbred side and 20 percent to the harness side. What happens in 2003 if a new agreement can't be reached?

Also, a bill addressing that odd time of 6: 15 p.m. is causing headaches. In the past, 6: 15 was the dividing line between day racing and simulcasting, which belonged to the thoroughbred side, and night racing and simulcasting, which belonged to harness.

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