Tracks step up push for slots

Racing interests at work to sway House delegates to forgo state-owned dens

General Assembly

March 20, 2004|By Howard Libit and Ivan Penn | Howard Libit and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

As the House of Delegates approaches its first hearings on expanded gambling in this session, the owners of Maryland's two thoroughbred racetracks are waging a campaign for long-term survival by trying to persuade lawmakers to put slot machines at the tracks and forgo the idea of state-owned facilities.

They've kicked off a feel-good television advertising campaign promoting the value of the people who work at the tracks.

They're making regular visits to lawmakers, promoting economic analyses that show that legalizing slots - and not permitting them at the tracks - would result in the death of the racing industry.

And they've kept Joseph A. De Francis, whose family has long been the public face of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, off the radar screen in the General Assembly.

Until yesterday.

At the persistent invitation of Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the Baltimore House delegation, De Francis re-emerged in Annapolis yesterday morning to talk to the city's 18 delegates about Pimlico and its historical economic impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Marriott said she insisted that De Francis talk because she believes no one knows Pimlico's history better than he. "He's the one who has the perspective on the racetrack and what it means to Baltimore City," she said. "He actually lives in Baltimore City, and he's the one we needed to hear from."

Two groups representing Pimlico neighborhoods also spoke to the delegation. But the presence of the controversial De Francis - who sold his majority interest in the Maryland Jockey Club to Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp. about 1 1/2 years ago - elicited harsh responses from city delegates.

Most notably, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, said she has no confidence in De Francis. McIntosh walked out of his briefing to city delegates, and was overheard by others as saying, "Joe De Francis makes me want to throw up."

"I've never known Joe De Francis to live up to any commitments he's made" to the community around Pimlico, said McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The bill from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. passed last month by the Senate would permit up to 15,500 slot machines at three tracks and three nontrack locations. Track owners and other racing advocates argue that if slots are legalized, tracks must receive at least some of them to ensure the survival of the industry.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which defeated the governor's slots proposal last year, is set to hold its first gambling hearings Tuesday. The measure passed by the Senate won't be heard until March 30.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a gambling opponent and critic of the governor's slots proposal, has questioned why track owners should be entitled to receive gambling licenses. He has promoted state-owned slots facilities - with private companies hired to oversee operations - as a way to ensure maximum revenues for Maryland, with a small portion of the proceeds dedicated to boost racing purses and funds for horse breeders.

For weeks, Magna representatives have been fighting that possibility. "We've had many conversations, with all of the leaders," said Paul Micucci, executive vice president of Magna. "Some of them get it, and some of them don't want to get it."

Micucci has taken the lead as the lobbyist for Magna, saying his experience with gambling in other states makes him better suited to work with lawmakers. He said De Francis is focusing on running the tracks, although others close to Magna and the governor's office say De Francis stirs up so many emotions that it's better to keep him at arms-length from the State House debate.

This week, Magna distributed to leading lawmakers an analysis by Christiansen Capital Advisers LLC, a New York-based gambling consultant. "There is no North American experience that suggests that granting purse supplements to racetracks in lieu of [slot] machines is a way of holding racetracks, horsemen and breeders harmless from casinos and [slot] machines at non-track locations," wrote Eugene Christiansen, chief executive of the firm.

Micucci said he is "astonished" that Maryland lawmakers are talking about legalizing slots and shutting out the tracks. "Pennsylvania is passing a bill with eight racetracks for slots, and Delaware tracks already have slot machines," he said. "It was never an issue anywhere else. It was just a given, because intuitively it only makes sense."

Paul E. Schurick, an adviser to Ehrlich, said the governor continues to believe that the tracks ought to be part of any slot legislation.

Micucci refused to speculate about what might happen to Pimlico or Laurel should slots be legalized in Maryland, but not at the tracks.

But Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and long-time advocate for slots at tracks, said there is "no more paramount issue we face this year than placing slots at the tracks."

"I don't think a lot of people understand the horse racing industry and its impact on Maryland," Davis said. "If we legalize slots, they need to be part of it."

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