Time to profit from racing

May 13, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

MAYBE A FRESH face is what Maryland's bickering racing industry needs to end the debilitating internal warfare that threatens to bring the sport to its knees.

Louis J. Ulman, a successful Columbia lawyer and thoroughbred horse owner, may have the negotiating skills and professional background to succeed as the new chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission.

The outgoing chairman, John B. Franzone, took the job with good intentions but ended up alienating too many of the feuding factions.

The depths of Mr. Franzone's frustrations came out loud and clear in an impolitic letter he wrote in March to Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis, who heads a racing subcommittee in Annapolis.

In this letter, Mr. Franzone tacitly admitted his inability to end the conflicts "that continue to plague our sport."

It was everyone's fault, the commissioner indicated, especially the Maryland Jockey Club's.

The only people not at fault, it seemed, were the commissioners. Yet the panel has been so passive during the Franzone era that you'd never know it had the power to run the sport of kings in Maryland.

"The Maryland horse racing business is in a steady decline," Mr. Franzone wrote in his March 26 letter, "yet the industry continues to pursue the same game plan -- bickering among themselves all year long, then come to Annapolis, get the [$10 million] purse supplement and put off any real change until next year. This craziness can't continue ... "

Well, he was right on that last point. Thanks in part to Mr. Franzone's angry letter, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor refused to let the $10 million purse supplement bill be approved this session.

That has created a new racing crisis, leading to fewer live weekday thoroughbred races and perhaps fewer racing days at harness tracks later this year.

Everyone winds up taking a financial bath.

Mr. Ulman will try to pick up the shattered pieces. Losing the $10 million purse supplement could reduce the quality of racing in Maryland and spark a drop in wagering in this era of heavy simulcast betting. It's a sad situation.

It's good news, though, for Delaware Park's owner, William K. Rickman Jr., and the corporate owners of the Charles Town, W. Va., track. Both of these upgraded facilities dramatically have boosted the caliber of racing -- and the size of purses -- because of immense profits flowing from their slot-machine operations.

Maryland racing, meanwhile, is trapped between these two casino tracks, known in the industry as "racinos." It's a war of attrition, and Maryland's tracks are slowly wasting away.

The hostile racing combatants have so poisoned the well that agreeing on nearly anything becomes a drawn-out, bitter struggle.

The melodrama surrounding approval of dates for Colonial Downs in Virginia -- part of the Maryland-Virginia racing circuit -- is a prime example.

An industry task force from the two states had worked out a deal, only to have Maryland horsemen sabotage it in front of the Maryland Racing Commission.

This even though a board member of the horsemen's group participated on the task force and was an ardent supporter of the deal.

Mr. Franzone, as he has done often, put the blame on the Maryland Jockey Club, though it appeared the real hangup had to do with a split within the horsemen's group.

The bigger question, though, is why the commission hadn't simply worked out the 2001 racing dates with its counterpart commission in Virginia. Wasn't that its duty?

Telling various industry factions to "work it out" not only is counter-productive; it's a cop-out.

The commissioners have to start doing the heavy lifting.

What's needed is a strong, determined Maryland Racing Commission willing to lead, willing to sit down and negotiate agreements on which no one would dare renege.

Racing history in Maryland shows that strong personalities can drag the industry out of its doldrums -- or scandals. George P. Mahoney did it as commission chairman in the 1940s; Frank J. De Francis did it as a track owner and then as economic development secretary in the 1980s.

With the Preakness -- the state's moment of glory on the national racing calendar -- set for next Saturday, it may be time for Mr. Ulman's commission to assume a far more activist role.

It could be the best and only way to end the feuding and start focusing on ways to make Maryland racing a viable, and profitable, sport.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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