FREDERICK - The Maryland Racing Commission has granted the first new license to operate a horse track in the state in more than 50 years. At a final hearing in Frederick, the commission gave the go-ahead yesterday to William Rickman Jr. and his father, William Rickman Sr., to build a small track in Allegany County.
The Rickmans, who own racetracks in Maryland and Delaware, must obtain numerous county and state permits before beginning construction. Once that permit process is completed - it could be lengthy because of opposition by Allegany County residents - the track would be built within two years, Rickman Jr. said.
The Rickmans' obtaining a license to operate a thoroughbred track changes the landscape of Maryland racing. It threatens the virtual monopoly of the Maryland Jockey Club, whose president and chief executive, Joseph A. De Francis, operates Pimlico and Laurel Park.
The idea of a new track in Maryland was floated by Gov. Parris N. Glendening as a rebuke to De Francis for aggressively supporting Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Glendening's Republican opponent, in the 1998 election.
How much competition the Rickmans will provide De Francis is unclear. Last year the Rickmans bought Ocean Downs, a harness track on the Eastern Shore.
They plan to open an off-track betting center in Cambridge in the coming year. In conjunction with their track in Allegany County, the Rickmans plan to construct two other off-track parlors in the state.
Their plans seem aggressive, especially in light of problems riddling the Maryland Jockey Club. The MJC is partner in a revenue-sharing agreement with Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County. But the parties are mired in disputes that hinder any expansion of racing or the development of their own OTBs.
Yesterday, Rickman Jr. and De Francis pledged to work together for the benefit of Maryland racing.
"I don't want to do anything to hurt the Maryland Jockey Club," Rickman said. "I will work with them."
The Rickman track off Interstate 68 in eastern Allegany County would offer year-round betting on other tracks' races shown on TV. It would race horses only 21 days per year - 15 days for thoroughbreds, six days for standardbreds (harness horses).
Rickman said he didn't know whether those brief meets would take place in summer or fall. Either way, he said, the thoroughbred meet would not compete directly with the Maryland Jockey Club.
He would probably conduct thoroughbred racing when Pimlico and Laurel Park shut down theirs, he said. Pimlico and Laurel cease racing for several weeks while Colonial Downs, the MJC-operated track in Virginia, operates its meet.
The Maryland Jockey Club initially planned on competing with the Rickmans for the Western Maryland track. But the MJC backed off, as De Francis said his company had determined that the track could not be profitable.
"We've never had an objection to a racetrack in Allegany County," De Francis said. "Our objections had always been with Mr. Rickman's original proposal to build a track that would lose money and to pay for it with OTBs in central Maryland."
OTBs in central Maryland would cannibalize business at Pimlico and Laurel Park, De Francis said. As long as Rickman builds no competing OTBs, De Francis said, "we wish him good luck with his Allegany venture. We hope it succeeds.`
Rickman said that his plans for OTBs, other than the one in Cambridge, are up in the air. However, he said, he believes his presence in Maryland will be positive for racing.
"I think competition is good," Rickman said. "If we build a nice OTB in Cambridge, maybe that will entice the Maryland Jockey Club to build a nice one elsewhere."
One person delighted with yesterday's racing commission decision was Casper R. Taylor Jr., speaker of the House of Delegates. He said that a track in Allegany County would boost the local economy and attract Marylanders and residents of neighboring states to Western Maryland.
"I think it's very good news," Taylor said. "It goes a long way toward bringing thoroughbred racing back to where it was for several decades.`"
Fairgo, the last horse track in Allegany County, closed in the 1960s.
Opponents of the Rickman track fear that it will end up as an emporium of slot machines or full-fledged casino gambling. Rickman, whose Delaware Park racetrack offers slot machines, said that he will not lobby for slots in Maryland.
"There'll be enough people leading the charge," he said. "If they do come to Maryland it will be to my detriment [in Delaware]. ... But this isn't about slot machines. This is really about horse racing."
David Brigham, spokesman for Citizens Against the Racecourse, disagreed. He said the Rickmans' pursuit of the track license in Western Maryland was all about slots: "What is this about if it's not about carving out territory?"
Taylor said he opposes casino gambling in Maryland but slot machines might eventually come "because of what's going on around us." Slot machines have proven hugely profitable at racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia.
"If there's going to be slot machines in Maryland, then it should come about by a vote of the people," Taylor said. "You can't be any more democratic than that."