Thoroughbred racing leaders expressed concern yesterday about the decision of the state's harness-racing horsemen to enter into a deal with the Bally casino operators to purchase Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways.
Although the harness horsemen rejected the same sort of joint venture offered by Joe De Francis to assist them in buying the tracks, the Pimlico/Laurel owner said he plans to continue extensive intertrack and off-track betting programs already in place with the harness industry.
"They [the programs] have been good for the total industry because they've been good for all of our customers," De Francis said. "It's just too bad that the past prejudices and paranoia by harness horsemen against the thoroughbred industry has now thrown them into the lion's den with casinos."
Under an agreement reached by a vote of 25-3 by the board of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners' Association on Wednesday night, Bally will loan the harness horsemen $4 million to complete the acquisition of the tracks. That figure is $2 million more than De Francis and a partner, harness breeder Joe Thomson, had offered the group.
Although Cloverleaf will own 100 percent equity in Rosecroft/Delmarva, Bally immediately will begin managing the tracks when the purchase is completed.
If gaming legislation is passed by the General Assembly, the casino company will have first option to buy half-ownership in the tracks and split gaming profits 50-50 with the horsemen if casino gambling is implemented at Rosecroft/Delmarva.
"Aren't these the same guys [Cloverleaf] that just last week were members of the Maryland Horse Coalition that we were going with to Annapolis to fight casinos?" asked Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
"Now, they are partners with the guy we were trying to fight. I strongly suspect the standardbred industry will now be promoting casinos."
Bernie Murphy, who represented Bally at the Wednesday meeting, told Cloverleaf: "We're in this to make money. We're in this to get gaming [in Maryland]. And now we've got 1,400 [harness] horsemen to go with us to Annapolis to help convince the legislature."
De Francis said: "The gates are now open [for casino operators to come into Maryland]. How this will all play out is an open question. It's certainly a major change in the landscape. Bally's is simply using the harness industry as a pretext to get casino gaming."
Unlike the thoroughbred horsemen, many of whom are racing purists and are hostile to casinos, the harness horsemen are embracing them as saviors.
About 80 percent of the Cloverleaf members that attended the open session of the Wednesday meeting stood up and expressed support for the Bally organization to buy the tracks outright without a partnership with Cloverleaf.
"Our horsemen are concerned because the financial picture of the [harness] tracks is so bleak," said harness owner Thomas Cooke of Rockville. "This $4 million loan just puts us further in debt."
Alan Foreman, an attorney for Cloverleaf, said the harness horsemen are so willing to embrace the casino operators because "they see their future tied to gaming. These are people that have seen their tracks pass through five different owners in a relatively short time and have been through track bankruptcies."
Despite these arguments, thoroughbred owner/breeder Joseph Pons Jr. of Bel Air said he is not convinced Cloverleaf made the right move.
"They might think they have found an angel [in Bally]," he said. "But they've made a deal with the devil."