Tracks say slots bill `anti-harness'

If Rosecroft, Ocean Downs stay off list of slots sites, `neither ... will survive'

Horse Racing

March 11, 2004|By Tom Keyser and Howard Libit | Tom Keyser and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Clarification: In a sports article in Thursday's editions of The Sun about the state's harness racing industry, Beth Trotto was identified as a Rosecroft Raceway board member. She is a member of the board of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners' Association, whose members are stockholders of Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc. That entity, which owns and operates the track, has a separate board.

After years of waiting for slot machines to come to the rescue, the state's harness racing industry fears that the slots measure making its way through the General Assembly could be a death knell instead.

"It's really an anti-harness bill," said Rosecroft Raceway board member Beth Trotto, referring to the bill that recently passed the Senate. "Are they trying to destroy an industry?"

One of two harness tracks in Maryland, Rosecroft was once seen as possibly the most lucrative site for slots because of its location off the Washington Beltway in Prince George's County. But the bill included provisions that could leave out Rosecroft and would prohibit slots at Ocean Downs, a harness track on the Eastern Shore.

"If neither Ocean Downs nor Rosecroft is authorized to have slots, then neither of them will survive, and there'll be no harness racing in the state," said Bill Rickman Jr., who owns Ocean Downs and is building a small track in Allegany County.

The standardbred industry, which has struggled in Maryland in recent years, ranges from large breeding farms to mom-and-pop operations. Trotto's family owns part of about a dozen standardbreds, and her son, Greg, trains them at Rosecroft. Without tracks in the state, she said, many families would get out of the business.

Marylanders can't simply van them to the two Delaware harness tracks to race because they restrict many of their races to Delaware-owned horses, Trotto said. And with no Maryland tracks offering incentives for Maryland-bred horses, the breeding farms would relocate to other states, she said.

"And the state's just saying `too bad,'" Trotto said.

Top Rosecroft officials declined comment for this story. They're immersed in legal disputes over ownership that have hurt their standing in Annapolis. But privately they paint a bleak picture of what could happen to harness racing if the Senate bill were to become law.

The House of Delegates, if it approves a slots bill, is likely to pass a far different one when it takes up the issue in about two weeks, according to lawmakers and others interviewed for this article. Some senators say the Senate gave the harness industry short shrift and hope the House rectifies that.

"They've got a real legitimate beef," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, of standardbred enthusiasts. "The Senate did a lot of work on this bill. Is it perfect? I don't think so. But we got something out, and now we've got to get the House to give us something back to work on."

The bill would authorize 15,500 slot machines at three tracks and three non-track sites. One of the three tracks would have to be in a "rural area."

The only one that would meet that criteria is Rickman's track in Allegany County. It was approved for 14 days of thoroughbred racing and seven standardbred. Asked whether he could expand harness racing there, Rickman noted that many standardbred farms are far away on the Eastern Shore. Also, he said, referring to the ongoing slots debate: "You've got to wait and see how everything shakes out."

Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft would compete for the other two track sites. However, the bill prohibits slots casinos within four miles of one another. Some senators said they preferred slots at the National Harbor development - the $2 billion hotel, shopping and entertainment complex on the Potomac River - rather than at nearby Rosecroft.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the bill's impact on harness racing wasn't examined in depth. "We tried to do the best we could for the horse industry," he said. "But the major focus was on the education trust fund."

He conceded that the ownership questions surrounding Rosecroft "did not help" and that Rosecroft's location became a liability when interest grew in National Harbor.

If National Harbor were to offer slots, a Rosecroft without slots would likely lose business, supporters say. Distribution of slots proceeds would be based on wagering, and any drop in business would mean a lower percentage of slots money for harness tracks.

At the outset, Rosecroft's annual purse distribution would double from $7 million to $14 million, raising prizes for the top-finishing horses from the current $50,000 a night to $100,000. That sounds pretty good, but standardbred leaders say the gain could be short-lived. That share of purse money could drop from 13 percent to 5 percent in as little as three years as bettors dwindled.

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