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Gambling study going nowhere fast


A member of a subcommittee of the Maryland Racing Commission that is studying the possible introduction of casino gambling at state tracks accused government officials in Annapolis yesterday of "dragging their feet" in allocating funds for an economic impact study on the issue.

A sense of urgency now prevails since Delaware recently authorized slot machines at its tracks and a referendum is on the Nov. 8 ballot in Jefferson County, W.Va., to allow video lottery terminals at the Charles Town Races.

"I know [Laurel/Pimlico operator] Joe De Francis has gone to the governor four times about this. I have spoken to the governor about it, too, and so has [commission chairman] John McDaniel," said H. Morton Rosen, a prominent Baltimore attorney and horse owner who also owns four farms in Carroll County and is a member of the commission's gaming subcommittee.

"Inquiries have also been made to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. But there has been no response. Maybe the governor is trying to protect the lottery. I can't read his mind. But I can tell you that racing in this state is going to be in desperate straits next year. We can count on the collapse of two off-track betting parlors in Elkton [near Delaware Park] and Frederick [near Charles Town] if we don't do something about this immediately."

Commission member Allen Levey echoed Rosen's sentiments saying that Delaware Park plans to have up to 1,000 slot machines in use by next summer and plans to build a resort-type hotel on track grounds to accommodate new gamblers, "many who will be coming from Maryland," Levey said.

Rosecroft/Delmarva president Ted Snell added "we are going to be in deep trouble by next summer" and estimated that casino gambling at tracks in adjacent states will cause Maryland thoroughbred and harness tracks to lose about 10 percent of their business.

All three men pointed to the example of Detroit Race Course in Livonia, Mich., where attendance has fallen 18.9 percent and handle 8.9 percent after a casino was opened across the river from the track in Windsor, Ontario. The track has recently cut purses from 5 to 7 percent and canceled its signature race, the $250,000 Michigan and One-Eighth Mile Handicap.

Rosen said it will take three or four months for a consulting group to draft a comprehensive report "and then it has to be distributed to every member of the state legislature. This is something that needs to be addressed by the General Assembly next year. At stake is a $1 billion industry and the investments of horse and track owners as well as all the people in the underlying industries."

Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said that "the governor has stated unequivocally that he is opposed to the expansion of gambling in any form in the state of Maryland. At the same time," Boinest added, "he is weighing making a comprehensive study of all aspects of the Maryland tracks and how they are equipped to meet competition from neighboring states."

In other action yesterday, the commission said its medication committee is recommending that the thoroughbred tracks maintain Lasix barns and beef up security and restrict access in the area. Horsemen had requested that the Lasix barn be abandoned and that the anti-bleeding medication be administered in private stables.

The board also adopted a proposal that will require the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association to give an annual accounting to the commission on how its fees have been collected and distributed.

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