Creating a unified front to show they could spend slot machine proceeds wisely, Maryland horse-racing industry leaders unveiled a plan yesterday that they said could revive the struggling sport if lawmakers authorize an expansion of gambling.
The 15-page plan is less notable for what it contains than for who signed on to it, bringing together competing factions of the racing scene whose back-biting has contributed to the failure of slot machine legislation for the past two years.
Signatories include James L. Gagliano, executive vice president of racing in Maryland for Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the controlling interest in the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks; William M. Rickman Jr. of the Allegany Racing Association, which plans to build a track in Little Orleans in Western Maryland; and Howard M. Mosner Jr. of the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society Inc., which hosts racing at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Racehorse owners and breeders also endorsed it.
The plan, which includes marketing and expanded off-track betting, focuses only on thoroughbred racing.
As a result, there was no mention of Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County that is being purchased by members of the family of attorney and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos. Industry members said they would include the Rosecroft buyers in talks once the purchase is complete.
"This is historic," Gagliano said. "It's probably the first time that we as a group have come together on a common platform on these issues. ... This marks a new unity for the racing industry."
The 15-page document was presented yesterday to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who has been the chief legislative opponent to slots since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election. Busch has repeatedly asked the ailing racing industry to demonstrate how it intends to revive its sport.
Busch said yesterday that he has not read the plan and could not say if it would ease his concerns about slots. But he called the document "the most substantive thing we've received."
"One of the issues that has always been out there is what is the justification to subsidize the horse-racing industry, without some indication of how the money is going to be spent," Busch said.
The plan lands as the legislature prepares to debate Ehrlich's gambling proposal for the third straight year.
The governor's legislation calls for 15,500 slot machines at six locations, including the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft tracks and the unbuilt Allegany facility. Two other nontrack locations would be allowed, raising the possibility that Baltimore City or Prince George's County could host two or three slots barns.
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee will hear testimony on the bill next week. "The fact that people involved in the racing industry can agree on a formula for success speaks volumes," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and slots supporter, said industry cooperation would boost the prospects of slots in the House of Delegates.
"It will gain them a great deal of support," Davis said, predicting a different outcome for legislation this year. "A bill will come to [the] floor."
If they receive some cash from slot machines, as Ehrlich has proposed, racing representatives said they could increase purses and a fund to supplement breeders to compete better with Pennsylvania, where slots have been legalized, and with other neighboring states with gambling machines.
Flush with slots cash, Maryland could compete to host the prestigious Breeder's Cup and could turn Preakness Week into "a national festival of racing," the document said.
The plan begins with a discussion of how to improve racing without slots. Under that scenario, the Laurel course would become the state's pre-eminent racing venue, with the Pimlico track in Baltimore hosting six weeks of events culminating with the May Preakness Stakes.
But the proposal does not address some of the thorniest issues surrounding the slots debate, such as where the machines should be located and how profits would be divided.
Disputes among track owners, breeders and horse owners over such issues have hurt the racing industry's standing with legislators and, along with it, the chances of getting a slots bill passed in the General Assembly, said John Franzone, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission.
"One of the problems has been that this industry is seen as a business that's in discord," he said.
Billy Boniface, president of the Maryland Horse Breeder's Association, said the document shows the industry can work together. He and others involved in racing say slots are needed for long-term economic survival.
W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-gambling groups in Maryland, said it is important for the racing industry to take steps to promote the sport and build the fan base.
"I applaud them for it," Carter said. "But it appears to be a [front] for slots. They ought to be doing this anyway."
Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said allowing tracks to have slots would put Maryland racing on a level playing field with Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware. "It makes it very difficult to move forward when one guy's got a howitzer and another's got a peashooter," Hoffberger said.