Jockey Club threatens closure of tracks; Cordish says he'll buy

With just four days before Anne Arundel County voters decide the fate of what could be the state's most lucrative slots parlor, leaders of both sides in the fight over gambling at Arundel Mills mall held dueling news conferences Friday in a last-ditch effort to sway undecided voters.

During the press events, the Maryland Jockey Club threatened the closure of its facilities if the referendum passes, while the Cordish Cos. countered that it would buy and restore the tracks if they are closed.

The high-stakes battle, with millions of dollars in revenues to the state and county at stake, has attracted statewide attention, with at least $6 million spent on advertising. Recent polls show a virtual tie.

The campaign has pitted two moneyed interests against each other. Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which holds a license for a 4,750-machine slots parlor, wants to build its Maryland Live! Casino, a billion-dollar slots emporium and entertainment complex, on the parking lot of the mall, and is asking voters to cast their ballots in favor of the referendum. The opposition, funded by the Maryland Jockey Club, wants another chance to bid on the slots license, with hopes of steering slots to Laurel Park race course, and is asking voters to reject the referendum.

At the Winner's Circle at Laurel Park on Friday morning, Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas, surrounded by dozens of track employees, reiterated earlier statements that passage of the referendum would mean "devastation and destruction" for the state's horse-racing industry. The training center in Bowie would close, Pimlico would operate only 40 days a year, and Laurel Park would be turned into an off-track betting facility, Chuckas said.

He vowed that if the license bidding process were reopened, his group would be "ready, willing and able" to submit a "first-class bid for slots." The Jockey Club has financed the group No Slots at the Mall.

David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Cos., held his own news conference, at the site of the planned casino outside the mall. Cordish called Chuckas' claims that horse-racing facilities would close if the referendum passes "reprehensible." Citing law that says the state could seize the tracks under eminent domain if the courses were no longer operating, Cordish said his company would step in to buy the racetracks. But he added that slots would stay at the mall and "under no circumstance" would he attempt to bring slots to the race course.

"If the out-of-state and foreign owners of the racetracks want to bail on Maryland horse racing, we stand ready, willing and able to buy the tracks and return Maryland horse racing to national prominence," Cordish said.

The back-and-forth came a day after the anti-slots group sent a letter to state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, asking him to investigate claims by the anti-slots group that Cordish violated election law by offering ownership stakes and perks to local business owners in exchange for support. Cordish called the claims "desperate."

When state voters approved 15,000 slot machines at five sites across the state in 2008, many assumed the slots license in Anne Arundel would go to Laurel Park. But the Jockey Club failed to come up with the up-front financing, and many were surprised when Cordish won the license. Recent polling shows that despite a split on the referendum, county voters think Laurel Park is the better location.

Question A asks voters if zoning approved by the County Council that allows the casino to be built at the mall should stand. Although the head of the state Video Lottery Terminal Location Commission, which granted Cordish the license, said if the referendum fails there are no plans to strip Cordish of the license, Chuckas is hopeful that the bidding process will be reopened. The Jockey Club, though, faces an uphill battle because of its business relationship with Penn National Gaming, which owns the recently opened slots parlor in Perryville. State law prohibits a company from owning more than one slots license.

The president of Penn National has said he would considering selling the Perryville license. Another option, which Chuckas said was on the table, would be lobbying for a change in state law, an uncertain prospect.

Both sides also pointed out the advantages to having slots at their location. Chuckas said Laurel Park doesn't have to construct a building and already has the facilities for slots.

Rayburn Smallwood, a Maryland City resident, said the racetrack has been a great neighbor, with impact fees paid by the track to the county funding new fire engines, a library and improvements to Route 198.

Cordish called the mall the No. 1 tourist destination in Maryland. He said that once the casino opens, about $30 million will go the county annually and another $400 million to the state education fund.

Standing beside Cordish,Sharon Roberts, executive vice president of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners' Association, said, "To now threaten they would close the tracks without slots is nothing short of extortion, and the people of our state should not stand for it."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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