Dark Horse

Following Bill Rickman through the halls of Annapolis reveals a lot about power, politics and a hot-potato issue- the passage of a slots bill. The owner of Ocean Downs, like most Marylanders, is on the edge of his seat.

March 31, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

He was out. He was in. And now, late on a Tuesday evening in Annapolis, William M. Rickman Jr. was out again. In one week, the owner of Ocean Downs racetrack went from being a favorite in a bill lawmakers were writing on how to award licenses for slot machines to being the outcast.

It was a dispiriting reversal of fortune after a summer of campaigning for gambling on the Eastern Shore. As Rickman saw it, he had been given a mountain and he had climbed it, and now, inside of days, it had been flattened.

He was in shock, but it was hard to detect. Always polite and even-keeled, he went around the Senate Budget and Taxation hearing room shaking hands. To one senator, in particular, he apologized for the strange turn of events. He didn't want anybody to think that what he'd told them about the governor's being flexible about his racetrack was untrue. More than anything, Rickman cared about his credibility.

It was Feb. 24 - only half-time in the battle over slot machines. At least that's what he told himself the next morning. The race wasn't nearly over yet. There was still the House of Delegates.

But even Rickman has to concede: In a contest that may not end until the General Assembly's closing bell on April 12, he is the dark horse.

From the day he sought a rare new racetrack license in 1998, Bill Rickman has anticipated slots would pass in Maryland.

And, from the beginning, Rickman has found himself nudged to the side by the racing industry, viewed as the outsider, the guy coming from behind, unnerving those who took Maryland horse racing as their birthright.

He's not the biggest player - that has been Joe DeFrancis, a major partner in the Pimlico and Laurel tracks - but he has a huge stake: He bought Ocean Downs in Berlin to protect his operations in Delaware, where he owns what is believed to be the most successful slots parlor in the country.

And while the owners of Maryland tracks framed their interest in slots as a way to preserve racing and history and agriculture and open space, the congenial, 57-year-old Rickman never pretended to be interested in horses. He's a businessman.

His family was in construction - leasing, really - when Rickman was a kid in Rockville. In recent years, Rickman Construction has made a specialty of building biotech research space on the Interstate 270 corridor. But one day 20 years ago, his father, William Rickman Sr., came home and announced he'd bought the old Delaware Park track for his horses.

Overnight, Rickman's focus changed: The track, and eventually gambling, became his business.

Despite his accomplishments, Rickman is a low-key guy. It takes running into him in the halls of Annapolis three or four times to recall what he looks like: oval face behind square, gold-rimmed glasses; mousy hair; a smallish man in loosely fitted suits and taupe shirts. Next to the crisp, dark-suited lawyers with thick briefcases who lobby legislators for other track owners, Rickman is a dowdy college professor.

His average-guy modesty masks the unusual certitude of a man whose success and wealth has little to do with the proverbial ticket - a college degree - and everything to do with hard work and the ability to regroup when circumstances demand it.

In 1966, he quit college to enroll in Army flight school. He had never been inside an airplane but returned from Vietnam with a Distinguished Service Cross. After being shot in the leg, his gunship under fire and out of ammunition, he helicoptered back into communist territory in Laos three times to help rescue troops surrounded by the enemy.

The incident helps explain his calm when, year after year, things go wrong.

"If it's not life-threatening," he says, "it's no big deal."

There was another lesson he learned from Vietnam: "Don't wait for the engine to quit before you figure out where you are going to land."

That is why he and his father started looking for racetracks in Maryland. They assumed the state was ripe for slots, and they wanted to be part of the action. They own two tracks - their still-undeveloped site in Allegany County wasn't a first choice, but it was in the district of Casper R. Taylor Jr., then speaker of the House, whom they met through a family friend, Denise O'Leary Hill. Taylor got the General Assembly and the governor to agree to a law that created a new track license in Allegany for one "very good reason," Taylor says: "economic development - jobs and a tax base. "

Ocean Downs went up for sale soon after. Rickman won the track in 2000 over Maryland Jockey Club owner DeFrancis, just as he had beat back DeFrancis' challenge for the Allegany license, this time by pledging far more than the $2.6 million price. He promised to make another $2.5 million in improvements to the track.

It was a smart move, taking Ocean Downs off the table.

If slots came to Maryland, Rickman would have a racing facility here to cut his Delaware losses.

This was his starting position.

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