Making a run for high stake in Md. racing

Montgomery County developer pursues new track in W. Md.

June 26, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

When Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell held a political fund-raiser two weeks ago, one of the influential Baltimore County Democrat's guests at the $150-per-ticket party was a soft-spoken businessman from Montgomery County.

Earlier this year, when state lawmakers were trying to revive their annual follies spoofing legislative goings-on, they turned to the same quiet man for a donation of $3,000.

And when Vice President Al Gore dropped in for a $25,000-per-couple dinner in Annapolis to help his presidential bid, the man was there again, sharing a table with Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Little-known in Maryland outside his native Montgomery, William M. Rickman Jr. has been turning up a lot lately at political and charitable fund-raisers throughout the state. It's a form of advertising for the 53-year-old developer and owner of a Delaware horse track and slot-machine emporium.

Rickman is jockeying to get a foothold in Maryland's turf-conscious horse-racing industry, where owners of the thoroughbred tracks consider him a threat to their de facto monopoly over the sport of kings. With the industry heavily regulated by the state, that rivalry has spilled over into the political arena.

"How can you expect somebody to take your side if they don't know you, or what you're trying to do?" Rickman asked while showing visitors around Delaware Park, the glitzy slots palace and thoroughbred track that he and his father, William Sr., 78, own near Wilmington.

Rickman was apparently thwarted last week in his bid to buy a struggling harness-racing track near Ocean City when Maryland track owners teamed up to match his offer.

He is vying with the same group to build a new track in rural, mountainous Allegany County. The state Racing Commission, which can grant only one license, is expected to decide by the end of the year.

"I think I can do some good in Maryland," Rickman said, arguing that Maryland's racing industry is tradition-bound and could benefit from having a little competition. That same sentiment is shared by powerful politicians such as Glendening and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who has pressed to bring horse racing back to his native Allegany County to generate tourism and jobs.

Rickman and his rivals - principally Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Laurel and Pimlico race tracks - continue to spar before the Racing Commission in Baltimore, in the legislative backrooms and political parlors of Annapolis, and in Western Maryland, where each is seeking local approvals for their track plans.

"It is an enormous chess game that gets bigger and bigger and bigger," said Bromwell, who counts both Rickman and De Francis as his political benefactors. Bromwell is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles racing legislation.

Those who know Rickman say he frequently gets what he goes after. "He's tenacious as hell," said Bromwell, who had to negotiate with Rickman and other racing interests last spring to get passage of a bill aimed at providing new financial help for the Maryland industry.

A University of Maryland, College Park dropout and highly decorated helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, Rickman has assumed day-to-day control of the commercial construction business begun by his father. The Rickmans have erected about 30 buildings in the Rockville area, specializing in providing laboratories and offices for the county's burgeoning biomedical industry. They quietly made a small fortune while avoiding the kind of political controversy that often accompanies large-scale residential development.

"When they gave you their word, they kept it and were very good people to do business with," says Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has known the Rickmans since Duncan was a Rockville city councilman in the early 1980s. Duncan has been perhaps the biggest recipient in Maryland of their political donations - collecting $12,000 in the past year as he eyes running for governor in 2002.

The younger Rickman has become a racing and gaming magnate - at least in Delaware - by taking over the operation of Delaware Park, the verdant, 750-acre race track built in 1937 by the du Pont family. Rickman's father, a longtime breeder and racer of horses, acquired the track with a partner in 1983 and revived racing there. But the track struggled financially, and the Rickmans joined other Delaware racing interests in pressing for legalization of slot-machine gaming.

It took six years of personal lobbying in Dover - and three vetoes by two governors - before Delaware approved slots in 1995, ostensibly to revitalize the state's horse tracks. "It was a do-or-die situation," Rickman said, acknowledging that he had warned publicly he would close Delaware Park, putting 400 people out of work. The track was losing more than $1 million a year by the time slots got the go-ahead, he said.

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