Rosecroft finds buyer within its own stable

Horse racing: Veterinarian and familiar presence Mark Ricigliano takes the inside route to purchase the harness track.

Horse Racing

January 22, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

FORT WASHINGTON -- Everybody knows Mark Ricigliano in the backstretch kitchen at Rosecroft Raceway. As the longtime veterinarian prepares to make rounds at the Prince George's County harness track, gritty horsemen braving the cold offer hellos and best wishes.

This isn't the setting in which you'd expect to find the prospective owner of Rosecroft, the struggling track near Washington that could become the most lucrative slot-machine franchise in the state. But this is where you find Ricigliano, the surprise winner of the recent bidding competition for the highly sought-after property.

Ricigliano, 47, a veterinarian as well as the wealthy owner of a telecommunications company, beat out high-profile bidders such as Harrah's Entertainment (Las Vegas casino), Magna Entertainment Corp. (owner of Pimlico, Laurel Park and other racetracks) and Louis Angelos (son of Peter Angelos, lawyer and Orioles owner).

That Ricigliano wasn't high-profile but was familiar around Rosecroft helped him win the support of 13 of the 17 board members representing the track's owners. After a deal with an Indiana-based gaming company fell through, they decided last month to sell -- literally -- to one of their own. Ricigliano had been elected to the board in January 2003. He resigned before submitting his bid to buy the track.

"Mark's position is he's very interested in racing," said Tom Chuckas Jr., chief executive officer of the raceway. "He's a Maryland resident. He has a business in Prince George's County. He's local. His 20 years' being on the racetrack worked to his advantage."

That, Chuckas said, appealed to Rosecroft's owners, the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association. It is a group of trainers, breeders and harness horse owners that bought the Fort Washington track in 1995 to save it from bankruptcy. The track has struggled to survive but now faces a potential windfall if the General Assembly approves slots under conditions favorable to racing.

"Maybe in the end they felt I had racing's best interest at heart," Ricigliano said, sitting at a table in the Rosecroft kitchen. "I purchased the track as a track. I love racing."

Ricigliano's purchase must be approved by the Maryland Racing Commission. He will file the required papers next month in hopes of a speedy approval process, he said.

Although he declined to discuss terms of the deal -- and Chuckas declined to reveal them -- Ricigliano said he's prepared to operate Rosecroft without slot machines. Still, he said, he plans to lobby aggressively for slots during the current legislative session.

"It's important for the whole industry," he said.

How important it would be to track owners remains to be seen. The prevailing wisdom that track owners would get fabulously rich with slots is probably not true, Ricigliano said. A slots bill could be written so that the cost of fees, building a casino and buying and operating the machines would minimize an owner's profit, he said.

Although Ricigliano has been a veterinarian for 20 years, his primary business is LightWave Communications, a Laurel telephone company. His veterinary work has almost become a hobby -- a few hours a week at Rosecroft, taking care of horses and mingling with their keepers.

"It's more for enjoyment than any other reason," he said.

Although Ricigliano lives in Laurel, home to Laurel Park, a thoroughbred track, he treats only standardbreds, which race at harness tracks. He started out with thoroughbreds, though, working at Belmont Park in New York. His first job was with a prestigious group working with such champion horses as John Henry, Slew o' Gold and Swale.

"Inside the equine world, this was a dream come true," Ricigliano said.

He spent two years in New York, working with horses all day and small animals at an emergency clinic all night. When that became too much, he moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore and worked as an equine practitioner for all of a week and a half. He quit and went into business for himself, realizing he didn't want to work for anybody else.

He moved to Laurel in the late 1980s to work at Freestate Raceway. When that harness track closed in 1989, Ricigliano began working at Rosecroft. By then, however, his business interests had begun to shift.

In the mid-1980s, he invested in a software-development company that began a succession of creating and then selling businesses that culminated in founding LightWave Communications in 1995. The Laurel company provides telephone service to more than 15,000 business customers and more than 5,000 residential customers, mostly in Maryland, Ricigliano said.

He created Northwind Racing to buy Rosecroft. Although it is "100 percent owned by me," he said, he plans to take one or two partners before filing his application with the racing commission and additional partners later. A stipulation by Rosecroft requires that he reserve 20 percent for minority investors.

Ricigliano said he realizes the venture will be challenging. First, he and Rosecroft must deal with lawsuits by Centaur Inc., the Indiana company that had a contract to buy the track but failed to complete the deal by a Nov. 1 deadline.

Ricigliano said he and his group will meet all challenges.

"This is nothing compared to what happens in the telecommunications industry," Ricigliano said. "We are one hardened group. What we're facing here pales to some of the wars we've gone through."

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