Del. slot king eyes Maryland

May 07, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

THE Slots King of Delaware wants to bring his act to Maryland. And political leaders -- including our "no slots, no way" governor -- are opening the door for him to Maryland racing.

William Rickman Jr. has made a fortune with slot machines at Delaware Park race track. Some estimates put his take at $100 million a year from the slots bonanza.

He's got cash to burn, and he wants "in" on Maryland racing. He's indicated interest in buying out the owners of Pimlico and Laurel or the owners of the Rosecroft harness track. To no avail.

So Mr. Rickman has settled on building a race track in Western Maryland. There's no money to be made from racing a few weeks each summer in rural Allegany County, but it would permit Mr. Rickman to open off-track betting facilities in Maryland and run a telephone-wagering operation that could turn into a gold mine.

He'd then be positioned to control Maryland racing and squeeze the profits of the Pimlico/Laurel and Rosecroft owners.

Will he also bring slots to Maryland?

Supporters say no, he wants to ensure his slots franchise won't have competition from Maryland tracks. But if Mr. Rickman were to own the major tracks here, he could change his tune.

Whatever Mr. Rickman's true intentions, he's got potent allies. He won Gov. Parris N. Glendening's attentive ear by lavishing huge campaign donations on the Democratic Party and Vice President Al Gore. At a recent high- roller's fund-raiser in Georgetown, Mr. Rickman sat next to the governor.

The Slots King has won the allegiance of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who went to bat for Mr. Rickman during dangled negotiations over a racetrack bill this year. Mr. Rickman hasn't been shy about letting people know the House speaker's on his side.

For instance, at a racing commission meeting two weeks ago, Mr. Rickman reminded the commissioners that House Speaker Taylor wanted a rapid decision on a Western Maryland track operator, and that he was ready to build the track with cash.

Flagrantly throwing political weight around may not prove as helpful as Mr. Rickman thinks.

His site for a Western Maryland track could end up in lengthy litigation. Residents at the site are fiercely opposed to any gambling there. They say there's already a major water problem and that a racetrack would create environmental concerns.

Besides, his site is about as anti-Smart Growth as you can get. It's far from any infrastructure or population center. In contrast, the competing site of the Pimlico/Laurel and Rosecroft owners is on the edge of Frostburg, between the county's two population centers, with access to the town's sewer and water systems.

If the governor's much-touted Smart Growth policy is more than an empty slogan, Mr. Rickman could have problems.

He also could face additional competition for that racing license. Now that the legislature has granted the Western Maryland track licensee new powers to open OTB facilities and become a player in telephone wagering, the racing commission could be legally required to seek new bids. This time, other racetracks with deep pockets may have intense interest.

Why? Because Maryland's telephone wagering law is so advantageous that this state could become the national headquarters for such operations, which could mean tens of millions of dollars for those running the local system.

Suddenly, a money-losing racetrack in Western Maryland could be the key to a fortune.

But gaining that track is fraught with dangers: Racing and corruption are closely linked in this state. Scandals erupted in the 1940s and again in the 1970s. A governor went to prison for manipulating racing days.

And now the racing commission has to choose an operator for a new track in Western Maryland. If politicians continue to interfere in the competitive bidding, if they hand-wrap a racetrack for a favored applicant, will federal or state prosecutors suddenly take an interest?

Never underestimate the convoluted twists and turns of decisions affecting Maryland's racing industry. Mr. Rickman is still the new kid on the block. Things could get a lot messier and more complicated than he ever imagined.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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