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Penn National among 6 bidders for Pimlico, Laurel Park

Company building 1,500-machine slots facility in Perryville

By Laura Smitherman | laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

December 18, 2009

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Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns gambling operations across the U.S., said Thursday that it is one of six bidders for Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the Preakness.

The Pennsylvania-based company has begun construction of a 1,500-machine facility in Perryville that is expected to open in October as Maryland's first slots casino.

Penn National is one of several bidders who expressed hope that Laurel Park could offer slot machines - if a proposal by the Baltimore developer the Cordish Cos. to build a 4,750-machine casino at Arundel Mills mall does not come to fruition. Slots have long been sought by the horse industry in Maryland as a way to save racing.

"We have to wait to see what happens with Cordish; that's obviously a fluid situation right now," said Eric Schippers, Penn National's senior vice president of public affairs. "If there is a possibility to have slots there one day, it would be nice to have the option of pursuing."

The law governing the state's slots program prohibits ownership of more than one license, but Schippers suggested that Penn National could take a management role and not own the license, as it does in Cecil County.

Donald C. Fry, chairman of the state slots commission, said the legality of being affiliated with two separate casino projects "depends on the circumstances."

The racetracks, along with a Bowie training center and the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, are being auctioned next month by the current owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March. The Canadian company was disqualified from bidding for a slots license earlier this year when it failed to pay required licensing fees.

Other bidders include the family of Joseph A. De Francis, who sold their interest in the tracks to Magna in 2002 and now want slots at Laurel Park. Cordish also bid but insists it wants to move forward with its Arundel Mills project.

The law allows slots in only five designated locations, precluding slots both at the mall and at Laurel Park.

None of bidders who have come forward would give details about their bids. An attorney running the auction for Magna said the other bidders declined to have their bids revealed publicly.

Separately on Thursday, officials with the Maryland Jockey Club that operates Laurel Park urged the Anne Arundel County Council to deny zoning approval to the Cordish project, or at least postpone the vote until after the auction so that they can hear from the new track owner. They said Laurel Park has all the permits, though not the zoning, needed to open a slots facility.

The state slots commission has approved a license for Cordish, but the County Council has not approved the zoning needed for the project. If Cordish is denied, the state would have to restart the bidding process. The council, which is expected to vote Monday, also is considering rezoning another area that includes Laurel Park.

"If zoning is approved at the Mills, Laurel cannot and will not survive," said Tom Chuckas, president of the Jockey Club, adding that hundreds of jobs would be lost.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.