Slots bill far from a hit with horsemen

Group vows opposition, seeking more for purses

Senate plans own proposal

March 12, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s newest proposal for slots at Maryland racetracks came under attack from some of his longest-standing allies yesterday as the state's horsemen threatened to oppose the bill unless the share allocated to purses is increased.

Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the $27 million Ehrlich's plan would provide to sweeten the prizes for winning thoroughbreds is "woefully inadequate."

Wright said the horsemen's group, which represents owners and trainers, is seeking about $70 million.

"As the bill stands now, the horsemen would rather have no bill than this bad bill," he said.

The horsemen have the prospect of some relief from the Senate, where President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that a work group headed by Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer will craft what amounts to an alternate bill. Miller said the Senate will earmark more for education, localities and purses than Ehrlich's new plan and will cut the share allotted to racetrack owners. The Senate plans to offset that cut by eliminating the $120 million in up-front licensing fees from owners that Ehrlich is counting on to help balance next year's budget.

The House, meanwhile, took a step toward denying Ehrlich any gambling revenue this year by giving preliminary approval to a bill that would set up a study commission to consider slots and report back in time for next year's session.

And religious leaders from around the state - including Ehrlich's pastor - gathered in Annapolis to rally opposition to expanded gambling.

Miller's announcement that the Senate will draft its own bill comes before the administration has even produced the amendments to its widely repudiated original slots bill. Industry sources said they expect the amendments, which will implement the changes the governor announced last week, to be delivered today.

Bill Rickman Jr., co-owner of Delaware Park and the prospective owner of a new track in Western Maryland, said the senators would not gain much in the split by eliminating the up-front fees. He said that would shave only 2 1/2 to 3 percentage points off the owners' 46 percent share in the revised Ehrlich bill.

Ehrlich's revised proposal has run into trouble with multiple interests just as quickly as the original bill unveiled in January.

The first version, which the administration boasted would give 64 percent to education, was rejected by track owners - who called the plan economically unworkable. The revision, which cuts the education share to roughly 44 percent of net proceeds, has been widely criticized as too generous to the tracks at the expense of local government, purses and education.

The horsemen's association has had a long and friendly relationship with Ehrlich - who represented a wide swath of Baltimore County horse country as a delegate. When the governor proposed a 5.8 percent share for purses in the original bill, they criticized the bill, but did not openly oppose it.

The most recent version, which cuts the purses' share to 3.6 percent, has prompted the horsemen to raise the stakes and threaten to sink the bill.

The horsemen's opposition would be pivotal because one of Ehrlich's chief arguments is that slots would "save" the racing industry. Wright said yesterday that the new Ehrlich proposal would do no such thing.

"Unfortunately, somewhere the importance of purses was forgotten in the latest proposal," Wright said. "We waited eight years for this in the hopes that it'll be done right, and it's far from right at this point."

Wright said the horsemen are willing to accept 7.5 percent, with a limit of $70 million a year. He said that compares with 10 percent in Delaware and 15 percent in West Virginia.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver defended the governor's proposal, saying a consultant had helped determine those numbers. "This bill was never designed to line pockets, nor was it designed to be a wish list," she said. "Nobody is happy with the numbers. Everybody wants more."

The horsemen's contention that they were shortchanged received support from Rickman, who said increasing purses is "the most important thing" for the future of Maryland racing. However, Rickman was not volunteering to take a cut in the track owners' share, which he called the lowest in any state with comparable facilities.

"The breeders' share appears to be too high and the horsemen's share appears to be too low," he said. Breeders, who say they need a subsidy to compete with other states, gained in the revised plan, their share going from $16.2 million to $25 million.

Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said Rickman's statement "sounds like someone trying to stir up trouble."

Bowman agreed that the share for purses was too low, but insisted no other segment of the horse industry was to blame.

While the shaky unity of the horse industry was unraveling, religious opponents of gambling were mobilizing to make sure there is no pie to carve up.

Representatives of Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and Muslim groups were among those who met at St. Anne's Parish House to announce plans for a "NoSlots Sermon Sabbath" this month. Among those attending was the Rev. Stacy Nickerson, pastor of Arbutus United Methodist Church, where Ehrlich is a parishioner.

Nickerson said she is undecided whether to deliver a sermon against slots because many parishioners oppose gambling but support Ehrlich.

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