Racing's new crisis Harness tracks: Imperiled horsemen mull sale to casino or owner of slots-racing park.


MARYLAND'S HORSE RACING woes continue. Paralyzed by the threatened loss of business to Delaware and West Virginia race tracks bolstered by slot machines, the $1 billion-a-year industry is witnessing a virtual takeover of its two harness tracks by gambling interests with little desire to see Maryland racing prosper.

Two offers for Rosecroft and Ocean Downs have been discussed by the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association. One would see Bally's Entertainment -- the big casino company -- assume control. The other would turn over the tracks to the Rickman family, owners of Delaware Park, the thoroughbred track flush with millions from its slots parlor. Either way, Maryland could be a loser.

Bally's purpose is clear: To gain entry to Maryland and leverage ownership of the harness tracks in an effort to legalize slot machines -- or casinos -- at state tracks.

The Rickman family's purpose is to block anything at the Laurel and Pimlico thoroughbred tracks that would undercut the family's successful operation in Delaware. Weaker Maryland racing helps Delaware Park.

But it harms the Maryland industry. Either new owner could cancel the crucial agreement controlling simulcast arrangements between the tracks. That would be a body blow for Pimlico and Laurel, which could lose $3 million in profits annually. It might be enough to force a sharp cut in racing days and send the tracks into a permanent swoon.

The Maryland Racing Commission should not permit Pimlico's main rival to buy the state's harness tracks. It could destroy the local sport. Nor should the commission sit by while a casino, with visions of expanded gambling, gains control of these tracks.

Yet the two harness ovals, owned by Cloverleaf, are losing millions as good horses and big bettors shift to Dover Downs, which has boosted purses 10-fold thanks to slots. A bailout plan must be found.

Sadly, Gov. Parris Glendening has ignored this growing crisis. Instead of exploring options with industry representatives, the governor has remained aloof. His failure to take the lead could have disastrous consequences.

Legislators, too, need to get involved. There are a number of ways the state can help racing meet the Delaware challenge. But someone in the State House has to step forward -- before it is too late for an industry that remains a major economic enterprise in Maryland.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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