Twilight racing left in the dark at Md. tracks?

De Francis' plans for thoroughbreds run into opposition

Horse Racing

June 29, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Plans by Maryland's major thoroughbred racetracks to offer Friday night racing this summer were dashed yesterday when a simmering dispute boiled over between the tracks and the people who own and train horses.

The Maryland Jockey Club, corporate parent to Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has already announced a new, 4 p.m. Friday start time at Laurel beginning July 7. Later starts - most weekday racing begins about 1 p.m. - have attracted new fans in cities where it has been tried.

But when track president Joseph De Francis appeared yesterday before the Maryland Racing Commission expecting easy approval for the plan, he ran into fierce opposition and ended up temporarily withdrawing the application.

He was similarly rebuffed yesterday in his efforts to establish a single telephone wagering system in the state.

Chief among the opponents to twilight racing was the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents trainers, owners and backstretch employees. The group's board of directors passed a motion to block Laurel and Pimlico from selling to out-of-state tracks the lucrative televised signal for evening races, said the group's lawyer, Alan Foreman.

De Francis expressed surprise, saying he had been assured by another representative of the horsemen's group that it would not block twilight racing. He said the plan was experimental, and would affect just eight Fridays at Laurel Park during when there is enough light to keep races running as late as 8:15 p.m. He said he has no plans to install lights.

Several commission members took umbrage that the tracks announced the change before seeking their approval. De Francis apologized and agreed to withdraw the application and try to seek an understanding with the horsemen's group - something Foreman said was unlikely anytime soon.

"It's disappointing. This is a proven way to expand the business," De Francis said afterward.

Foreman said his group recognizes that the change may bring in more fans but is deeply suspicious of a newfound alliance between De Francis and the harness-racing industry, represented in Maryland by Ocean Downs and Rosecroft. Harness racing has traditionally been run at night, a franchise it has jealously sought to protect. A state law passed at the behest of harness operators years ago allows them to block thoroughbred races later than 6:15 p.m.

A revolutionary revenue-sharing agreement struck last year was supposed to lay aside the age-old animosities between harness and thoroughbred racing. Under the five-year agreement, the bulk of the income derived at the state's tracks is pooled, then 80 percent is distributed to the thoroughbred industry and 20 percent to the harness industry.

Theoretically, any increase in business would be good for everyone involved in the state's notoriously fractious racing industry. But Foreman said thoroughbred owners and trainers already feel they are subsidizing their harness competitors. They are worried that an increase in wagering at night might be used by harness interests to argue for a bigger slice of the revenue when the joint agreement expires in four years, Foreman said.

"We are reluctant under a short-term deal to allow something like this to go on without some comfort for us," Foreman said.

De Francis also lost a bid yesterday to have Maryland become the first racing state to sanction a single-operator for a telephone wagering system. Telephone wagering through local tracks has been legal in Maryland since 1984, but, because of a lack of interest and political infighting, the necessary regulations have never been drawn up.

Out-of-state companies have taken bets from Maryland fans for several years, but the lack of regulations prevented local tracks from getting into the business. The commission plans to draft those regulations and submit them for public comment at its meeting next month, meaning that a system could be up and running later this year.

De Francis, supported by the owners of Rosecroft, appealed to the commission to allow only one entity - presumably controlled by them - to operate a system on behalf of all tracks. This was opposed by the owners of Delaware Park, who are seeking to build a track in Western Maryland and break up the Maryland Jockey Club's monopoly on thoroughbreds.

"Competition benefits the state, its horsemen and its breeders," said Bill Fasy, vice president of the Allegheny Racing Association LLC, the Delaware Park affiliate seeking to build the new track.

Also opposing the single-entity plan was the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the owners of Ocean Downs.

The commission voted 6-0, with two abstentions, to allow multiple operators. It also decided by consensus to provide tracks in the state with a 35-mile protective radius, within which all telephone betting accounts must be routed to that track's system, and to require a "cooling off" period that would prevent same-day telephone betting with credit cards. The commissioners decided not to impose dollar limits on telephone bets, something sought by opponents of compulsive gambling.

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