Track owner gains entry

Bid to block Ocean Downs sale comes to an end

Md. foothold achieved

DeFrancis and allies say asking price was too steep

July 29, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

William Rickman Jr., owner of the Delaware Park horse track and slots emporium, has apparently succeeded in gaining his long-desired foothold in Maryland racing.

Rickman is proceeding with plans to buy Bally's at Ocean Downs, a harness track on the Eastern Shore, after the owners of Rosecroft Raceway - in concert with Joseph A. De Francis and the Maryland Jockey Club - abandoned efforts Thursday to keep Rickman out of the state.

"It boiled down to how many dollars do we want to throw down the toilet just to keep him out," De Francis said yesterday.

A developer from Montgomery County, Rickman reached an agreement last month to buy Ocean Downs for $5.1 million - $2.6 million for the track, $2.5 million for operating costs for five years.

In an effort to protect their monopoly in Maryland racing, Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc., the owners of Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County, and the Maryland Jockey Club, of which De Francis is president and CEO, teamed to block Rickman's purchase.

As a former owner of Ocean Downs, Cloverleaf maintained a first right of refusal to match any offer for the track near Ocean City. The Maryland Jockey Club loaned Cloverleaf the $5.1 million to match Rickman's offer.

As partners under a revenue-sharing agreement signed last year, Cloverleaf and the Maryland Jockey Club viewed Rickman as a threat. If he succeeded in obtaining a track in Maryland, he could compete in the important arenas of simulcast wagering, off-track betting and telephone wagering.

Rickman had previously tried buying Rosecroft and expressed interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park. And now he and his father, William Rickman Sr., are competing with the Rosecroft-Maryland Jockey Club alliance for the license to operate a track in Allegany County.

After matching Rickman's offer for Ocean Downs, Cloverleaf had one month before making final its first right of refusal. During that month, De Francis said, Cloverleaf and Jockey Club officials reviewed the physical and financial condition of Ocean Downs.

De Francis said they discovered that Ocean Downs was "hemorrhaging red ink" and in need of "substantial capital investment."

Rickman declined to comment, citing a confidentiality clause in his contract with Bally's, the giant casino company that purchased Ocean Downs in 1997. But he did say that he enters Maryland as a friend of the racing establishment.

"I have the full intention of getting along with the Maryland Jockey Club," Rickman said. "They're my allies in the mid-Atlantic region.

"I have no interest in taking over Maryland racing. But I do have an interest in participating. I want a place at the table in Maryland."

Some industry insiders say privately that Rickman will use that place primarily to protect his slot-machine empire at Delaware Park by arguing against widespread slots in Maryland.

Slot machines transformed Delaware Park from a financially troubled track into an enormously profitable facility. De Francis has lobbied hard for slots at tracks and off-track betting centers in Maryland.

De Francis, who has called Rickman "the slots king of Delaware," offered an olive branch of his own.

"Taking Mr. Rickman at his word," De Francis said, referring to Rickman's offer of cooperation, "then I would want to welcome him into Maryland and extend a hand of friendship. I would look forward to working with him to move Maryland racing forward.

The Maryland Racing Commission would have to grant Rickman a license to operate Ocean Downs. The commission also will decide who, if anyone, gains the license to operate the proposed track in Western Maryland. The commission has scheduled a public hearing Sept. 27 in Cumberland.

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