$4 million in renovation funds may be transferred to purses


Members of the state's fractious racing industry are negotiating a compromise that could inject $4 million - funds that had been set aside for track renovations -into thoroughbred race purses this year.

The money, which has been collected through a temporary increase in the "takeout," or the amount of wagers withheld from winning bettors, was supposed to be used to support $35 million in bonds for upgrading Pimlico Racecourse and Laurel Park.

However, the plan, unveiled to great fanfare in 1999 and passed by the General Assembly the next year, fizzled. Track officials say the revenue was considered too unsteady for bond investors, who would have insisted on high interest rates before buying the bonds.

A plan under discussion would scrap that scheme, reducing the takeout, which now stands at 18.5 percent for the most common types of bets, to the previous level, 17 percent. As a result, the amount available for distribution to winning bettors would rise, assuming the measure can win legislative and gubernatorial approval.

About $2.5 million has been raised from the temporary surcharge, which went into effect July 1, 2000. That is expected to rise to about $4 million before the law could be changed to pare the takeout this summer, said Alan Rifkin, an attorney for the owners of Pimlico and Laurel.

The tracks are willing to put the $4 million into purses, which are distributed to owners, jockeys and others connected to the top-finishing horses in races.

"It's an outreach on our part to our colleagues in the industry," Rifkin told members of the House Ways and Means committee yesterday during a hearing on the industry in Annapolis.

The increase would reduce strain on the $40 million purse fund, diminished by loss of a $10 million subsidy that lawmakers yanked last spring in the face of persistent squabbling in the sport.

The result has been a drop in purses and stakes, and talk of eliminating some races such as the Pimlico Special, one of the few nationally recognized stakes in Maryland.

Rifkin said the tracks are negotiating with other elements of the industry to come to terms on a comprehensive package of reforms.

Among the issues being considered are ways to share revenue between harness and thoroughbred tracks, limits on the hours that harness and thoroughbred races are run, and other matters.

Del. Clarence Davis, chairman of the Ways and Means finance resources subcommittee that oversees the tracks, encouraged the industry to present a unified set of recommendations to the General Assembly in the next few weeks so they can be enacted before adjournment.

"This committee has always been a friend of the horse racing industry but we cannot furthur our support for this industry if the industry does not come together. Everybody has got to give something up in a compromise," said Davis, a Democrat from Baltimore.

Alan Foreman, lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horesemen's Association, which represents horse owners and trainers, said after the hearing that his group supports the idea of reducing the takeout and putting the accumulated money into purses. But differences persist over other issues, he said.

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