The battle for control of horse racing in Western Maryland did not die when one side dropped plans this week for building a racetrack. The battle lines became clearer, their arguments sharper.
The warriors, Joe De Francis and William Rickman Jr., have begun criticizing each other's plans and motivations. Their conflict reaches beyond Western Maryland into the issue of what's best for racing in the state as a whole.
Rickman, who owns Delaware Park and wants to build a horse track in Allegany County, says the horse-racing industry would benefit from competition. Rickman wants even more to build off-track-betting parlors that would compete with those established by De Francis.
De Francis, who runs the company that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park and controls the state's OTBs, wants to build two off-track betting parlors in Western Maryland. A group headed by De Francis dropped plans this week to compete with Rickman for the license to build the track.
"That is such a misleading issue it's almost criminal," De Francis said about Rickman's embrace of competition. "It's hypocrisy of the highest order to suggest that what Rickman's proposing is fair and open competition."
The state legislature passed a law in early 1999 clearing the way for a horse track in Allegany County. Hailed by some as an economic stimulant and decried by others as an assault on a rural way of life, the track is subject to the approval of the Maryland Racing Commission. It plans a hearing late next month on whether or not to grant a license to build and operate it.
Rickman already owns Ocean Downs, a summer harness track on the Eastern Shore that he acquired in July. But he covets the license for the track in Western Maryland, because it's a thoroughbred license.
If he possessed a thoroughbred license and received permission to build OTBs, he would not have to go through De Francis and the Maryland Jockey Club to obtain simulcast signals of thoroughbred tracks around the country. He could set up his own operation and compete head-to-head with De Francis.
The state's network of OTBs has shrunk from five to three in recent years.
"I believe the OTB market is virtually untapped in the state of Maryland," Rickman said. "This is a way for me to build OTBs without having to get approval from the Maryland Jockey Club."
The rhetoric escalated when the De Francis group, an alliance of the MJC and the owners of Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County, dropped plans for pursuing the license to build the track in Allegany County. The alliance instead proposed building OTBs in Hagerstown and Cumberland.
De Francis explained the change in strategy: His group simply decided that a racetrack in Allegany County was not economically viable. Having stated that publicly, De Francis could sharpen his attacks on Rickman's plan.
De Francis said that OTBs in Hagerstown and Cumberland make more economic sense than locating a track "in the middle of nowhere." And anyway, De Francis said, Rickman's primary objective is to build OTBs that would cannibalize the existing market, a market controlled by De Francis and the Maryland Jockey Club.
De Francis rattled off his company's contributions to Maryland racing: It conducts 220 live days of racing per year during which $40 million in purses is awarded, provides 3,000 stalls for horses, maintains two tracks and one training center and employs 1,000 workers at union scale.
Of Rickman's call for competition, De Francis said: "When he does all those things, when he bears the same burdens, then I'll be the first person to testify in support of his OTB application."
Rickman has been clear about his intentions since March, when he submitted his application for the Western Maryland license. His application also contained a proposal for three OTBs. He has said all along that a small track in remote Western Maryland is not feasible unless subsidized by OTBs.
Rickman's track would offer only 20 days of horse racing per year. The rest of the time it would operate as an OTB.
Rickman estimated that the track would cost $7.7 million to build. Consultants hired by the commission issued a report this week saying that Rickman's track would cost closer to $13.5 million to build.
Rickman disputed that estimate. It was provided by Heery International Inc., a construction-management firm in Baltimore.
As the owner of a construction company in Rockville, Rickman said he owns much of the equipment and employs many of the workers the report contends he would have to supply. Also, he said, many costs were overestimated.
"I'm in the construction business," Rickman said. "I know what the costs are."
More important, he said, is his intention of paying for the track with his own money.
"What difference does it make what the track costs?" Rickman said. "It all becomes moot, because I'm paying cash for construction."
Rickman also said that the shift in strategy by the De Francis group to build OTBs in Western Maryland bolstered his case. Rickman's track would be built in Little Orleans at the eastern edge of Allegany County, between Hagerstown and Cumberland.
"They've done a lot to support my argument that my location is the best," Rickman said. "If there's justification for two OTBs in Western Maryland, there's justification for a small track that will serve as an OTB year-round."
Rickman said that although the De Francis group had changed tactics it had not changed its objective. It wants to maintain the status quo, maintain its monopoly on racing in the state, he said.
"They're pulling back and taking another angle to block me," Rickman said. "What else is it about if it's not about competition?"