Leaders of the horse racing industry are fighting a provision of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machines legislation that would abolish the Maryland Racing Commission, an agency recently known for its tough regulation of racetracks.
Under the provision, Ehrlich could replace all current commissioners with his choices on a reconstituted board. Trainers, horse owners, commission members and at least one track executive say such a move would deprive the state of much-needed expertise in the racing industry.
Many suspect that Joseph A. De Francis, who runs the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, is the driving force behind the proposal. De Francis has clashed repeatedly with the commission, which recently extracted a pledge of $15 million from the Maryland Jockey Club's parent firm to eliminate what it called "Third World conditions" at the racetracks.
Many in the horse industry -- longtime allies of Ehrlich -- suspect the panel's action and the governor's move are more than a coincidence.
Ehrlich's provision, which would merge the commissions that oversee racing and the Maryland State Lottery into a single agency, is part of the administration's bill to allow the installation of 10,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.
Ehrlich aides insist the proposal is driven by a desire for efficiency and deny the idea came from De Francis.
"It was the belief of the administration that it made sense to have one coordinated commission rather than two agencies that could possibly work at cross purposes," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "The problem that any interested party might have had with the commission did not play a part in the newly reconstituted panel."
The administration is reworking its slots bill in response to criticism that its formula for dividing the proceeds is unworkable for the industry and local governments. But Kenneth H. Masters, Ehrlich's chief legislative officer, said he expects the commission provision to remain in the plan.
De Francis, who sold the jockey club's controlling interest in Laurel and Pimlico to Magna Entertainment last year, denies he is behind the provision -- though he supports the concept.
Representatives of the racing industry are nearly unanimous in their opposition to the idea.
"It's called politics," said Louis J. Ulman, chairman of the racing commission. "This is one way of getting rid of the members in one fell swoop."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a slots supporter but also a fiercely partisan Democrat, said the provision appears to be the work of "some enthusiastic politico" in the governor's office trying to open up some appointments for Ehrlich.
All of the current members of the unpaid board were either appointed or reappointed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.
Miller said he would keep an open mind on the issue but expressed concern about losing the "institutional knowledge" of the current board members.
Ulman and fellow commissioner John Franzone, the chairman before Ulman, have repeatedly clashed with De Francis in recent years. Ulman says he believes De Francis or his representatives urged the governor to abolish the racing commission as a way of getting rid of the members -- particularly himself and Franzone.
"I don't have any evidence of that," Ulman said. "But I can't believe the governor woke up one day and said: 'I've got to abolish the racing commission.' This was their chance to get back at us."
De Francis vehemently denies that. "That's just absurd," he said.
He said that neither he nor his representatives urged Ehrlich to abolish the racing commission. De Francis said the jockey club's only input into Ehrlich's bill was through an industrywide coalition headed by Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
Nevertheless, De Francis said, he believes it would be best if one regulatory body oversaw all aspects of the business -- racing as well as slots. Within that commission, he would like to see a subcommittee of perhaps four or five members with direct oversight of racing.
"I share the commonly held view within the industry that it is important to have a group of individuals with specific expertise in the finer points and nuances of horse racing," De Francis said.
Another racetrack owner, William Rickman Jr., sharply criticized the idea, saying abolishing the racing commission is "a terrible idea." He owns the Ocean Downs harness track near Ocean City and is building a track in Allegany County where Ehrlich hopes to put slot machines.
Rickman also owns Delaware Park, which combines slot machines and horse racing. He said that in Delaware he answers to two separate commissions -- a racing commission and a lottery commission that oversees slots.
That's how it should be, he said, because overseeing racing and regulating slots are two different disciplines.
The nine-member racing commission deals with so many complex issues that the expertise of commissioners is invaluable, said Franzone. He mentioned issues such as telephone betting, simulcasting, industry disputes, racehorse medication, off-track betting facilities and ruling on racing disputes appealed from the track stewards.
Franzone said that he and Ulman, in particular, have been aggressive in trying to do what is best for racing and not just the Maryland Jockey Club.
The panel produced a report last fall that described conditions in the stable areas at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center as "totally unacceptable" -- with housing for backstretch workers "akin to Third World conditions."
Before approving Magna Entertainment Corp.'s purchase of a majority interest in the jockey club in November, the commission insisted that Magna commit $15 million to improvements on the backstretch. Magna agreed, and added a pledge of an additional $15 million in track renovations.
"If July 1 comes and there's no commission, who's going to enforce that?" Ulman asked.
Alan Foreman, the lawyer representing the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the racing commission serves the industry well and shouldn't be abandoned.
"It's a system that isn't broke and doesn't need fixing," said Foreman, whose client represents trainers and horse owners.
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a Democrat and a commission member, found more in Ehrlich's bill to dislike than just its provision for doing away with the panel.
"I am disappointed," Moyer wrote to House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "I read a bill that appears hastily conceived, with tunnel vision on slots, that neither revitalizes the horse racing industry or manages the gaming industry very well."
She said the state needs to protect live racing, guarantee that the Preakness remains in Maryland, ensure racetrack upgrades and preserve the breeding industry and horse farms. Ehrlich's bill does none of that, she said.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said he sees no justification for abolishing the commission.
"When we elect a new governor, it doesn't mean he gets rid of boards and commissions just to appoint new people," the Montgomery County Democrat said.