OXON HILL - Maryland racing industry executives pleaded with lawmakers yesterday to eschew talk of full-scale casinos in the state and instead confine expanded gambling to racetracks.
Racing interests made their slots-at-tracks pitch as a legislative panel studying slots toured the Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track just off the Washington Beltway near the Potomac River.
Rosecroft representatives told members of the House Ways & Means Committee that tracks are the best sites for slots because they already conduct gambling, can handle crowds and need the money to revive the sport. And, they said, a properly marketed slots program could be a tool to attract new fans to the sport of horse racing.
"The horse industry is very unique - an industry that channels economic benefits to agricultural areas of this state," said Jeffrey M. Smith, chief executive of Indiana-based Centaur Gaming, which has a deal in the works to buy Rosecroft.
He urged lawmakers during their tour of Rosecroft to look at putting slots at tracks - not full casinos elsewhere.
But at a committee hearing shortly after the tour, the panel heard a different message from U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn.
The Prince George's Democrat urged the panel to consider full-scale "destination resort casinos" - complete with table games, hotels and other amenities.
Wynn said full casinos at sites such as National Harbor, located a short distance from Rosecroft, would draw more out-of-state patrons and generate more jobs and economic activity.
He suggested the state issue two classes of gambling licenses - one for slots at racetracks and the other for full casinos at other sites. He added that casino licenses could be competitively bid.
"I don't think you should be forced into a take-it-or-leave-it proposition," Wynn said, referring to a failed legislative proposal from last year that would have restricted slots to racetrack sites.
The high-stakes battle between casino and racing interests to shape future gambling legislation is unfolding at a critical juncture.
An Annapolis lobbyist for Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas casino tycoon Steve Wynn's company, has been circulating a draft of legislation that calls for at least three major, full-scale casinos in Maryland along with slots at racetracks.
Key legislative leaders say they see little political support for full casinos. But horse racing interests clearly are concerned and are fighting back.
Horse owners, racetrack workers and others attended the hearing sporting buttons with a horseshoe and a message: "Slots at Tracks."
Rosecroft executives outlined for House Ways & Means Committee members ambitious plans to raze the existing track and build a huge new slots emporium and track grandstand if slots are authorized.
Smith, with Centaur, said the company's plans include a hotel, restaurants and other entertainment facilities.
"This is not a slots barn," Smith told members of the legislative panel. "We do not want a slots barn."
The company's plans are on hold, though, pending a decision on legalizing slots and, more importantly, on Centaur's ability to finance the $55 million purchase of Rosecroft.
A former partner, Delaware North Companies of Buffalo, N.Y., filed a breach-of-contract suit against Centaur that has blocked it from proceeding.
Smith said company officials are "working feverishly" to get an updated license application to the racing commission so that it can be approved by a Nov. 1 deadline. Centaur's deal to buy Rosecroft from its current owners is set to expire on that date.
There were mixed views on slots from people attending yesterday's public hearing at Prince George's Community College in Largo.
Several neighborhood residents voiced opposition, saying they feared increased crime, traffic and other problems.
"I frankly think this is a shaky way to run an economy," said Carmen Anderson. "It promotes the worst in society."