Loss of funds puts horse racing in bind

April 12, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

THE INDUSTRY that can't get its act together - horse racing - has done it again. With a giant assist from the speaker of the House of Delegates, Maryland racing is digging itself a deep hole.

Gone is $10 million in state funds to bolster track purses and make Maryland more competitive with slots-rich tracks in Delaware.

Rosecroft, the harness-racing oval in southern Prince George's County, could be on the critical list as a result. Pimlico and Laurel will take a big hit as more jockeys, trainers and owners shift their operations to Delaware Park.

And the elaborate track improvements planned for Pimlico (once bonds are sold) could be thrown into doubt if the loss of purse money leads to a further wagering decline.

The clear winner is William Rickman Jr., owner of the Delaware Park slots-racing track and the small Ocean Downs harness track on the Eastern Shore. His maneuvering has destabilized Maryland's racing scene, given his Delaware track a huge advantage and set the stage for another possible bid for Rosecroft - and perhaps, at a later date, Pimlico.

Ironically, those who put the $10 million purse supplement in jeopardy were the very ones with the most to lose by its disappearance - the horsemen and breeders. They played a high-stakes game with Mr. Rickman and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor to gain an advantage on other racing issues. Sadly, their machinations blew up on them.

That $10 million purse supplement directly aids jockeys, trainers and horse owners. Not a penny of these state funds winds up in the hands of track operators.

The supplement money is huge for Rosecroft. One-quarter of its daily purses come from the state. When that disappears this summer, Rosecroft will be crippled. The two Delaware harness tracks, thanks to that mother lode of cash flowing from slot machines, already offer purses that nearly triple Rosecroft's nightly offering.

The person who blocked passage of the purse-supplement renewal was House Speaker Taylor. To various delegations, he gave various reasons. The bill had had no trouble passing the Senate, 41-6, and had strong support in the Ways and Means Committee.

Previously, Mr. Taylor went out of his way to help Mr. Rickman's efforts to bring racing to the speaker's home county of Allegany in Western Maryland.

This latest move greatly enhances Mr. Rickman's position, both in Delaware and Maryland.

Another key Rickman cheerleader, House Majority Leader John A. Hurson of Montgomery County, worked for passage of bills that would have helped Mr. Rickman's cause and weakened the position of the state's current thoroughbred track owners.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, meanwhile, remained on the sidelines. Previously he had tried to undercut the Laurel-Pimlico ownership. But this time he was a neutral observer, though aides said he didn't oppose renewal of the $10 million purse supplement from extra lottery funds.

Given the bleak fiscal outlook for Maryland government, it would be extraordinary if this money were restored next session. And by 2003, there might not be much left of the racing industry.

Even a move to legalize slots at the tracks may come too late.

Or by that time, Mr. Rickman, backed by the tens of millions in profits he's making on Delaware Park's slots, could be King of the Hill in Maryland, too.

More likely, there could be new, out-of-state ownership at Rosecroft and another, deep-pocket co-owner of Pimlico and Laurel. These would be desperation moves, though.

A $1 billion local industry is on the brink. The greatest pain will be felt by local jockeys, trainers and backstretch employees.

This session's racing debacle could have been avoided had feuding groups declared a truce. But the thoroughbred horsemen seem obsessed with gaining the upper hand over their harness-racing brethren. They also seem intent on dictating terms to the Pimlico-Laurel owners.

They have effectively blocked expansion of off-track betting outlets, blocked efforts to turn thoroughbred racing into a twilight event in summertime and blocked efforts to experiment with a brief summer meet in Virginia.

Track owners, meanwhile, have disappointed legislators with their lack of business acumen. They have failed to show quick results on track improvements and OTB expansion.

Mr. Rickman, for his part, is using Speaker Taylor to destabilize the racing scene even further with construction of a Western Maryland race track, plus OTB outlets, that will drain revenue from Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft. And a weak racing commission remains incapable of unifying the industry.

It's a mess that Speaker Taylor made immeasurably worse by effectively killing the $10 million purse supplement. Even if the industry now sees the light and views this disaster as a wake-up call, it may be too late.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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