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Idea of new track is debated; Md. Jockey Club would fight proposal if it ever happens


A top representative of the Maryland Jockey Club yesterday threatened to wage an aggressive fight against any new horse track or track operators that would compete with Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

During a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee on racing issues, members inquired about the need for a new horse track in Maryland. Alan M. Rifkin, the main lobbyist for the Maryland Jockey Club, paused, lowered his voice and spoke with firm, measured words.

"We have heard the discussions, cloaked to some degree, about whether the state needs a new racetrack, and whether or not the licensee, my client, ought to be penalized ," said Rifkin, whose client is Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club and majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

"We tread very lightly on the issue today ," Rifkin said. "If it becomes more of an issue, I'm sure you'll hear us much more loudly."

The issue involves the long-term -- if not long-shot -- proposal of building a new horse track in Maryland. Gov. Parris N. Glendening broached the subject last summer during a meeting with Sun editorial writers.

He suggested a public-private partnership that might build a track to help the stagnant industry. He was roundly criticized, and the issue largely disappeared.

It resurfaced recently during hearings of the so-called Janney Commission, the state study group on horse racing chaired by Stuart S. Janney III, a Baltimore County horse owner and breeder. Yesterday's hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee was designed to hear from Janney. He spoke first -- before Rifkin.

Janney declined to reveal the scope of assistance his panel will recommend soon to the governor and legislators. But he said the industry needs continued help to compete not only regionally with Delaware tracks subsidized by slot machines but also nationally with thriving states such as Kentucky and New York.

During the past two years, the General Assembly and Glendening have granted the racing industry more than $16 million in subsidies, primarily for purses.

On the subject of a new racetrack, Janney said that was an issue for the Maryland Stadium Authority or a similar body that could properly study its financing and ramifications. Then Janney got up, and Rifkin took his place before the committee. Rifkin addressed the ramifications.

He said that De Francis understands that he made "decisions that perhaps are causing harm at this time." De Francis bitterly opposed Glendening's re-election. Glendening has said that he intends to do nothing to help De Francis, but that he wants to assist the industry in general.

Rifkin did not elaborate on what he referred to as "cloaked" discussions. But he acknowledged later that he meant any attempt by the state to approve a racetrack that someone other than De Francis might operate.

Maryland doesn't need a new racetrack or racetrack operator, Rifkin said.

"Do we need help at our facilities? Yes," he said. "Are they aging? Yes. Could we use more capital infrastructure? Certainly. You saw what happened during the Preakness when the lights went out."

What Maryland racetracks need, Rifkin said, are slot machines.

"With that revenue," he said, "we could enhance our facilities, provide the state with a tax return and rebuild the facilities to their glory."

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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