Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos is bidding to buy a bankrupt horse-racing track in Prince George's County and resurrecting a push to allow slot machines there.
Angelos' proposal came as Maryland's second slots casino opened Tuesday at the Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore. Gov. Martin O'Malley, state leaders and Worcester County officials attended the grand opening of the $45 million casino, the latest expansion of Maryland gambling that took many years and rancorous debate to become a reality.
And the debate hasn't ended. While voters approved slots at five locations in 2008, efforts have been under way since then to expand gambling to other sites.
Under Angelos' proposal, supported by Rosecroft Raceway's owner and the bankruptcy trustee, he would pay $9 million in cash plus another $5 million if slots are permitted in Prince George's County and a casino is operational at the harness-racing track by Dec. 1, 2012. The purchase agreement, outlined in court documents filed this week, needs to be approved by the bankruptcy court.
Many uncertainties hang over the proposal. Legalizing slots at any new location requires a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution. And Angelos, a top Baltimore lawyer and avid owner of thoroughbred horses, is prohibited from having a direct ownership stake in a gambling enterprise under Major League Baseball rules. The ownership and management structure under Angelos at Rosecroft was unclear in court documents.
But Angelos' bid has support in the horse-racing community, whose industry has been declining. A possible shutdown this year of the state's main thoroughbred tracks was averted at the 11th hour by an O'Malley-brokered agreement to provide state financial backing funded by slot-machine revenue.
"Mr. Angelos is a good businessman, a prominent lawyer and well known in the community. To me, it's like a trifecta," said John Franzone, a longtime member of the Maryland Racing Commission.
The Angelos family had previously tried to broker a deal to buy Rosecroft, which filed for bankruptcy in June 2009. That deal fell apart in 2005 when prospects for legalizing slots machines there dimmed.
Peter Angelos could not be reached for comment.
The current owner welcomed Angelos' bid.
"We're thrilled. The Angelos family is a great family in Maryland," said Kelley Rogers, president of Rosecroft's owner, Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc. "They're going to do great things for Rosecroft. We're really pleased. It's been a long winding process."
Meanwhile, after a slow start to the state's slot-machine program, casinos are opening for the first time since slots gambling was banned in the 1960s.
The Hollywood Casino Perryville opened in late September, generating $21 million in revenue so far. And after a long and contentious legal battle, the state's largest casino is expected to be unveiled late this year at a temporary facility next to Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County while a permanent parlor is under construction there.
The state has been unable to attract acceptable bids for licenses to operate casinos in Baltimore and at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland. Meanwhile, owners of the Laurel Park thoroughbred track plan to lobby in the coming General Assembly session for a second slots license in Anne Arundel County.
O'Malley defended the pace at which slots casinos are opening. "You'll be sore pressed to find another state in the country that has opened not just one but two of these locations in this period of time," the governor said, noting that much has happened during the recent recession. "I'm looking forward to opening the remaining three as we move forward in the course of this year."
Besides the 300 construction-related jobs and 236 full-time positions the Casino at Ocean Downs created, O'Malley and county and business leaders are optimistic that the venue will complement Ocean City's tourism industry and attract visitors to the resort town during the off-season.
Instead of tourists heading across the border to visit casinos in Delaware, Jerry Redden, director of economic development for Worcester County, said, he expects them to stay put in Ocean City if they want to gamble. The resort town gets 8 million tourists annually, he said.
The slots parlor, next to the Ocean Downs harness track, includes 750 slot machines whose denominations range from one penny to $5. The 34,000-square-feet venue features a bar as the focal point as well as high ceilings and Victorian-like decor.
Oceans Downs owner William M. Rickman described the casino as a "local activity" that will fit well with the surrounding communities. He said the casino plans to remain small and do little advertising.
"We're not glitzy. We're low-key," said Rickman, who also owns the Delaware Park racetrack and casino. "It's different from a lot of places. Today, there are a lot of razzle-dazzle casinos. I think it's tasteful."
More than three hours before the casino's 1 p.m. opening, Ocean City resident Beckie Jolliff arrived and waited despite the frigid weather. "I wanted to be the first and be part of history and the excitement," Jolliff said.
Dozens of gamblers joined Jolliff in line, and casino officials let guests in about 20 minutes early. Half an hour later, very few machines remained unoccupied. Gamblers stood in line to sign up for the casino's loyalty program, while Maryland Lottery officials gave away free scratch-off tickets to guests.
Angela Cabala, 69, of Ocean Pines, tried her luck at a penny "Sex and the City" machine. A frequent visitor of Harrington Raceway & Casino in Delaware, Cabala said she will now make the five-minute commute to the Ocean Downs casino.
"I love it," she said. "Plus, it gives a lot of people jobs."
The Ocean Downs racetrack will resume its 40-day live racing season in the summer, which had been suspended last year as the casino was being built.
Rosecroft had been operating essentially as an off-track betting site for two years before it closed in July because of financial troubles. Last year, the state legislature rejected a bill sought by the track to legalize poker and table games there.
Rosecroft wasn't designated a slots site in legislation that legalized such gambling and sent the issue to a November 2008 referendum. Several Prince George's County elected officials had objected to having slots in their county.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat who attended the opening of the Ocean Downs casino, said he would "absolutely" support a bill that would expand slots gambling at Rosecroft and bring the issue to a statewide ballot in 2012.
Miller called Rosecroft a prime location to draw gamblers from Washington and Virginia.
"You could take this facility right now and put it in Rosecroft," Miller said, referring to the Ocean Downs casino. "You could market it, you could reap money for education, reap money for racing and save taxpayers a bundle of money."
According to court documents, Rosecroft's bankruptcy trustee, James Murphy, met with potential buyers and sought bids for the racetrack. Five entities submitted a bid, and they were given a second opportunity to provide a "higher and better offer," according to court documents.
Peter Angelos emerged as the best bid, court documents said.
Under the deal, Angelos also agreed to pay another $3 million if the General Assembly approves a $15 million bond that would be funded through slots revenue dedicated to a standardbred purse account. Angelos also said he would apply for a racing license with the state racing commission to run live racing at Rosecroft in the fall.
Franzone, of the commission, said the legislature should consider financial assistance for the track, since the governor brokered a deal to save live thoroughbred racing at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course by providing up to $4 million.
Rosecroft is seeking a similar financial structure provided to the two thoroughbred tracks. The Maryland Economic Development Corp., known as MEDCO, is expected to provide the $3.5 million to $4 million to the two thoroughbred tracks as a loan that would be repaid by the state, using slots revenue intended for thoroughbred track improvements.
Franzone said Rosecroft would need some work, but racing might be able to resume in late summer.
Ralph Hayward, president of the Maryland Standardbred Horsemen's Association, said Angelos has the kind of clout the track needs to get back onto its feet. The track, he said, could be put into shape in a few weeks.
"But it's not the shape of the track, it's getting the horses to come in. You've got to get a full complement of horses to fill your schedule." That said, Hayward added, "Everybody hasn't left Maryland yet. They have farms here and they'd like to bring their horses back to race at home."
Sun staff writer Candus Thomson contributed to this article.
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