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Ocean Downs sale is likely; Delaware Park owner has tentative deal to buy harness track; Wants foothold in state; Competing bids likely from Md. track owners


The wealthy Montgomery County owner of a Delaware thoroughbred track and slot-machine emporium has reached a tentative deal to buy a harness track near Ocean City, offering him the beachhead in Maryland's racing industry that he has long sought.

William Rickman Jr., who also is vying for rights to build a horse track in Western Maryland, has an agreement to purchase Bally's at Ocean Downs, Dennis Dowd, presidentof the Worcester County racing facility, said yesterday.

The proposed purchase - for an undisclosed price - faces a number of hurdles, not the least of which is the possibility that owners of Maryland's other horse tracks could match Rickman's offer and buy the financially struggling Eastern Shore venue.

Dowd said yesterday that Rickman's purchase is subject to "a number of contingencies," including a pre-existing agreement to allow the former owners of Ocean Downs buy it back if Bally's decides to sell it.

Rickman did not dispute Dowd's account yesterday, but declined to provide details, referring to a confidentiality agreement he has with Bally's, the fitness and casino chain.

Should Rickman, son of a Montgomery construction magnate, succeed in purchasing Ocean Downs, observers say he might be poised to vie for dominance of Maryland's racing industry with Joseph A. De Francis, head of the company that owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, the state's two thoroughbred tracks.

"This is competition, any way you want to cut it," said Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association Inc."He's been trying to have a stake here for a long time."

Rickman's father, William Sr., owns horses and has raced them in Maryland for years. The son oversees Delaware Park near Wilmington, which has been thriving since the advent of slot-machine gambling in that state. He has been trying for the past few years to buy one or more tracks in Maryland.

The owners of Maryland's other harness track, Rosecroft Racewayin Prince George's County, have a right to match Rickman's offer for Ocean Downs. That was part of the deal under which Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc.,which owns Rosecroft, sold Ocean Downs to Bally's three years ago, reportedly for about $2 million.

Gerald Brittingham, presidentof Cloverleaf Enterprises, said that although Rickman's interest in Ocean Downs has been rumored for months, he has not received any notice from Bally's that a sale was imminent. He would not say whether Rosecroft's owners would be interested in buying back Ocean Downs.

De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, could not be reached for comment. He might have an interest in joining Rosecroft's owners to buy Ocean Downs, observers say. The Jockey Club and Rosecroft have a revenue-sharing agreement to split income from harness and thoroughbred racing.

Any transfer of Ocean Downs also would be subject to approval by the Maryland Racing Commission. Kenneth Schertle, the panel's executive director, said he has received no request for a transfer of the track's license. But he said he did not expect that Rickman would have any trouble getting the commission's sanction.

Dowd said he did not know Rickman's plans for the 52-year-old track, which offers harness racing and various entertainment events during the summer, and betting via simulcast year-round.

The half-mile-long Ocean Downs track, which operates 40 days a year during the summer, had its heyday in the 1950s. It has not turned a profit for Bally's in the past three years, although losses were trimmed to less than $300,000 last year. Dowd said. The facility was hit by a barn fire two years ago that killed five horses and did an estimated $250,000 damage.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.said he hopes Rickman's pending purchase of Ocean Downs does not affect his hopes of getting a thoroughbred horse track in Allegany County, which he represents. "There's still no competition in the thoroughbred industry," Taylor, a Democrat from Cumberland, said of the need for a western Maryland horse track.

Rickman and De Francis are competing for a license to build the western Maryland horse track. Rickman has purchased a 140-acre farm between Cumberland and Hagerstown, while De Francis has proposed a site in Frostburg. Neither location has received final approval from local officials.

Rickman said that developing a race track in western Maryland remains "my number-one priority."

Capps, the horse-breeding association executive, speculated that Rickman's purchase of Ocean Downs might help him in his pursuit of the license to operate in western Maryland: "As an existing licensee, then he is no longer simply an outside guy coming in and trying to establish himself."

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