The state's study commission on horse racing voted yesterday to recommend that Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly approve $20 million to boost purses at Maryland's thoroughbred and harness tracks.
The figure is more than double last year's subsidy for purses, the money paid to owners of the top horses in each race. The panel also recommended $1.5 million for marketing the racetracks.
The commission was created by the governor and legislature to advise them on ways they might help the racing industry compete with wealthier tracks in neighboring states, which have slot machines.
But the prospect of any taxpayer dollars being spent on the racing industry during the current legislative session was cast immediately in doubt when the panel sided with a political adversary of Glendening.
The panel voted not to suggest repeal of a law that grants Joe De Francis, the controlling stockholder of Pimlico and Laurel Park, a virtual monopoly on thoroughbred racing in the state. De Francis, a crusader for slots at racetracks, supported Glendening's opponents in last year's gubernatorial primary and general election.
Glendening, who opposes slots anywhere in Maryland, wants the law repealed.
"The governor wants Maryland racing to thrive, and he wants competition," said Eleanor M. Carey, Glendening's adviser on racing issues. "He's not inclined to put any money for purses in a supplemental budget unless there is competition."
The law was written more than a half-century ago, apparently as a way of stabilizing a rapidly changing racing industry. It says that only the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico, and the Laurel Racing Association, which operates Laurel Park, can be granted a license to operate a one-mile thoroughbred track in Maryland. De Francis is president and CEO of both.
Members of the study commission, which includes prominent lawmakers, voted three times whether to recommend repeal of the law. They considered slightly different wordings of the recommendation.
The votes were 6-4, 6-5 and 6-5 -- each time against.
Signaling potential political battles in coming weeks, Carey said: "That doesn't mean someone else in the legislature won't feel inclined to put in a bill to repeal it."
Debate over allowing someone else to build or operate a thoroughbred track that would compete with Pimlico or Laurel Park became spirited.
"I don't think it's a secret that I'm one of the biggest critics of the Maryland Jockey Club," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a 42nd District Democrat. "But I don't think we have the right to take away property rights.
"I'm not ready to give up on Pimlico racetrack. What I'd like them to do is either fix it or sell it."
Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell questioned the consequences of clearing the way for a competing horse track.
"Are we trying to put Joe De Francis out of business?" said Bromwell of the 8th District. "Do we want to dismantle racing as we know it today and take a chance we can make it better? I don't know if I'm willing to take that chance."
He wasn't, and neither were a majority of commissioners, despite a forceful argument from Stuart S. Janney III, the Glendening-appointed chairman of the commission.
"Do you really think the status quo is something you want to support?" said Janney, a Baltimore County owner and breeder of thoroughbreds. "People do better when they feel the hot breath of competition or potential competition."
Yesterday's meeting of the panel, known as the Janney Commission, was its fourth since beginning in December to consider possible aid to the racing industry.
At an earlier meeting, the commission heard testimony from University of Maryland researcher Wayne Rhodes, horse racing studies coordinator, who put the total economic impact of horse racing and breeding in Maryland at $700 million.
He also estimated that the industry accounts for the equivalent of 10,000 full-time jobs or about 15,000 actual jobs.
In the past two years, the legislature and governor have approved more than $16 million in aid as racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia have continued to prosper because of slot machines.
The $20 million in recommended purse enhancements comes as the three horse tracks in Delaware are preparing to double their number of slot machines. Meanwhile, the aging Maryland tracks continue to deteriorate, and criticism of De Francis' management escalates.
When Delaware Park, a thoroughbred track, opens in April, it will offer about $250,000 in purses per day.
Without any assistance from the state, Pimlico and Laurel Park would offer purses of about $155,000 per day, the panel said.
The difference could be enough to lure Maryland horses and fans across the border and to enhance Delaware Park's racing so that it hurts Maryland's in the national simulcast market. With the $20 million in proposed state aid, Maryland's purses would be about $210,000 per day.
The Janney Commission also voted to urge Pimlico and Laurel Park to proceed with plans to participate in a forthcoming 24-hour horse racing cable channel that will allow viewers to bet on races from their homes.
Pub Date: 2/27/99