Racing out of the gate

March 26, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT WOULD a General Assembly session be without a horse-racing feud?

We've got a doozy this year.

Everyone in Annapolis wants to tell track owners how to run their business. So does a powerful competitor from Delaware.

This has been complicated by a power play from the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association against the rival harness-racing industry. The group wants to run night races at Laurel and Pimlico in direct competition with harness tracks.

All of this is placing in jeopardy a plan to renovate Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft. Without improvements, Maryland racing will continue to decline, opening the door to slots at state tracks.

It all started with proposals to continue a $10 million state subsidy to racing purses and to set up an industry-supported bond fund for track renovations.

For once, the owners of Pimlico/Laurel and Rosecroft reached agreement. This, in turn, led to a surprising deal to permit twilight racing at the thoroughbred tracks, a move that could help all three tracks prosper.

But two new issues surfaced. One involved William H. Rickman Jr., the wealthy owner of the slots and racing track at Delaware Park. He needs the legislature to approve provisions that could help him in his bid for a Western Maryland track in House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.'s district.

Not coincidentally, Mr. Rickman has become a fast friend of Mr. Taylor, and an even closer companion of House Majority Leader John A. Hurson.

With that kind of leverage, how could the Delaware slots kingpin lose?

By forgetting that Annapolis is a two-ring legislative circus. Mr. Rickman encountered a hostile state Senate, which forced him to negotiate a compromise last week with Maryland's current track operators. He even agreed to the twilight-racing provision.

That should have ended matters. The compromise racing package flew out of the Senate committee on an 11-0 vote, and is speeding toward the House.

There, the thoroughbred horsemen are making dire threats. They are demanding night racing at Laurel and Pimlico -- or they will shut down simulcast wagering.

Track owners oppose the horsemen's demand. So do neighborhoods around the two thoroughbred tracks. Summertime twilight racing, though, has gained broad acceptance.

That's not good enough for the thoroughbred horsemen group, which for a time had Mr. Rickman in its corner. But in agreeing to support the Senate package -- including twilight racing -- Mr. Rickman abandoned the horsemen's position.

So the horsemen sent a letter to Senate and House leaders threatening to block all simulcast wagering at a Western Maryland track.

Verbally, the group's officials vowed to shut down simulcast wagering in Maryland this summer unless the legislature capitulates.

Call it lobbying by tantrum. So far, it hasn't worked.

But there's more.

Enter, John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission and the designated representative on the panel of the thoroughbred horsemen. He's been busy promoting the thoroughbred horsemen's proposal, even claiming -- erroneously -- that he had the full backing of his commission.

He and another administration minion, Eleanor R. Carey, have been pushing the thoroughbred horsemen's position.

Plus they are demanding that track owners make far bigger personal investments in racing improvements. That's ironic, because the owners already have agreed to put at least $30 million of their own money into the upgrade.

The governor's position is unclear. He is dead set against slots at the tracks. He has embraced the modernization plans and a track in Western Maryland. Yet officials from his administration are undercutting those efforts.

The result of all this intrigue could be a stalemate in which no racing legislation is approved.

That would mean an end to the state's $10 million purse subsidy, no twilight racing, no bond money for renovations and major questions about the future of that Western Maryland track.

State racing again would be on life support.

And we'd be a giant step closer to the day when the "ca-chinggg" of slot machines drowns out the sound of hoofbeats.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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