Call forward: Phone bets get OK

The Maryland Racing Commission approved regulations yesterday that permit racetrack operators in the state to develop a system that would enable residents to bet on horse races over the telephone.

Several out-of-state companies already provide the service to Maryland subscribers. But this is the first time that betting by telephone, long the province of neighborhood bookies, can be conducted by Maryland businesses with the blessing of state government.


Joe De Francis, head of the company that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, said that he plans to develop a system in conjunction with Rosecroft Raceway that he hopes will be operational by the end of the year.

"We have for too long watched money flow out of Maryland into Pennsylvania and New York accounts," De Francis said. "This gives us the ability to compete with our neighbors to the north."


Such out-of-state companies as The Racing Network, and Television Games Network (TVG) have signed up Maryland bettors who prefer wagering from home or office rather than the racetrack or off-track betting center. Those companies would continue to do business in Maryland.

De Francis said that he hopes their customers would shift to the Maryland system. Whereas little or none of the money wagered through the out-of-state firms benefits Maryland racing, proceeds of the Maryland system would go to the racetrack owners, to horsemen in the form of purses, and to the state through taxes.

Residents would establish an account with cash, check or credit card. They could place wagers against that account on the full slate of state and simulcast races offered at the track and OTBs.

Developing a system for accepting wagers is half the equation. The other half is finding a way for the races to be shown on TV and personal computers. De Francis said he plans to work with TVG or another company to broadcast the races into Maryland homes.

The regulations governing telephone betting allow only licensed racetrack owners to operate a system. That essentially grants a monopoly to Pimlico and Laurel Park, the state's major thoroughbred tracks, and Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County.

Rosecroft's owners have signed a contract to buy Bally's at Ocean Downs, the harness track near Ocean City. Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft operate under a revenue-sharing agreement that would result in their developing a system together.

The racing commission has accepted applications for a license to operate a proposed horse track in Western Maryland. The De Francis-Rosecroft group and Bill Rickman Jr. and his father Bill Rickman Sr., owners of Delaware Park, are competing for that license. If the Rickmans win, they could develop their own telephone-betting system in Maryland.

The Maryland Stadium Authority also agreed yesterday to review the competing proposals for the Western Maryland track.


John Brown, chairman of the stadium authority, went out of his way during yesterday's meeting of the agency's board to stress that it was being asked merely to appraise the feasibility of construction of the rival plans, and whether they can be built with their proposed budgets, not to recommend one over the other.