Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos' family pulled out of a deal yesterday to buy the Rosecroft Raceway - a surprise move that track officials cast as a vote of no-confidence in the prospects for legislation allowing slot machine gambling at racetracks.
The deal's last-minute collapse is a blow to the Prince George's County harness racing track, which has seen two other attempted purchases fall through in the past two years.
It also represents a retreat by Angelos, one of the state's most influential figures, from the role he had been expected to play as a heavy lobbying presence in the push for legalized slots, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature legislative initiative.
Rosecroft CEO Thomas Chuckas Jr. said track officials were waiting at the settlement table yesterday morning when an attorney for the Angelos family arrived to say the family wanted a penalty-free extension of up to 60 days, which would expire just after the end of this year's legislative session.
Chuckas said the attorney's explanation was that family members were "concerned over events taking place in Annapolis." Track officials took it to mean that the Angelos family is worried a slots bill will not pass.
But the $13 million deal, which had been approved by the Maryland Racing Commission, was not contingent on any legislation, so track officials refused to grant an extension.
"The bottom line is there is no closing taking place," Chuckas said.
The Angelos family, which had purchased a $7.2 million mortgage on the Fort Washington track in a preliminary stage of the deal, will lose a $500,000 deposit. They continue to hold that mortgage.
Angelos is forbidden by Major League Baseball rules to own a racetrack, so the purchase was being made in his wife's name. Spokesmen for the Baltimore attorney said he planned to issue a news release about the Rosecroft deal, but he had not done so by yesterday evening.
Slots legislation has died each of the past two years and faces strong opposition this year as well - particularly from Prince George's County, where Rosecroft is located.
Opposition from Prince George's delegates, County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Rep. Albert R. Wynn was crucial in scuttling a slots compromise between top Annapolis leaders last fall.
"Both Jack Johnson and myself have expressed our opposition to slots in Prince George's County, and I think the majority of elected officials in Prince George's County are opposed to slots," said Wynn, who has favored casino-style gambling instead. If Angelos has concluded that opposition to slots there is solid, he's right, Wynn said.
But a key slots supporter, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, said that he did not think the Angelos family decision would affect the slots debate.
"The issue is not Rickman or Angelos or De Francis, the issue is what is the best location for the [slots] facilities," Miller said, referring to William Rickman Jr., a Montgomery County developer who holds two standardbred track licenses, and Joseph A. De Francis, a president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club.
Miller, whose district includes Prince George's and Calvert counties, said that polls show overwhelming public support for slots at tracks. "Rosecroft is a great location," he said. "It's a track. It doesn't matter who the owner is."
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor doesn't see the Angelos' withdrawal from the Rosecroft purchase as indicating doubt about the prospect for slots.
"The governor would have welcomed them into the equation, but this really does not have much impact on the slots legislation itself," Fawell said. "The governor thinks we've seen broad and deep support from the general public for over three years, and he hopes that will be enough to get this bill through the House."
But Del. Obie Patterson, a Democrat who represents the area around Rosecroft and lives within walking distance of the track, said residents are wary of slots at Rosecroft.
"No one has talked about any side effects. No one is talking about local aid and what it would take to ensure the community stays healthy and stable as it is now," he said. "Many of the citizens there are retirees, and they can't just pick up and move."
Similar concerns by residents have scuttled the push to put slots at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium or at Ocean Downs in Ocean City.
In the same hour that the Angelos family was scheduled to close on Rosecroft, the state Senate took up the latest version of Ehrlich's slots bill, which received a favorable committee vote last week.
Unlike Ehrlich's proposal, the bill as amended by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee does not explicitly name the locations where slots would be located. But opponents say its requirement that four licenses be available for racetracks all but guaranteed expanded gambling at Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft and a track yet to be built in Western Maryland.