Maryland's highest court ruled that a dispute over Laurel Park's disqualified bid to open a slot-machine casino should be decided by a state contracting board before being litigated in court.

Laurel Park sued the state commission charged with awarding slot-machine licenses at five locations around the state after voters ratified a constitutional amendment to allow that kind of gambling. The commission had tossed out a bid to put slots at Laurel Park because the horse-racing track's owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., failed to submit $28.5 million in required license fees.

The Court of Appeals ruling on Monday forces Laurel Park to wait until the commission awards licenses before the track owners can mount another legal challenge to what they characterize as a flawed process. The court found that the state Board of Contract Appeals has jurisdiction in the matter, and that only a final decision from that body could be contested in court.

The commission, which is reviewing applications for slots parlors to be built in Baltimore, in Anne Arundel County, on the Eastern Shore and in Cecil County, is expected to award licenses this fall.

The Maryland Jockey Club, the Magna subsidiary that operates the Laurel track, said in a statement the club remains "hopeful" that state officials will clarify uncertainties in the statute governing the licensing process. Magna, which has filed for bankruptcy, argued that it appeared the fees weren't refundable and therefore represented an unconstitutional seizure by the state.

In its bid for 4,750 slot machines, Laurel Park indicated it couldn't pay the fees because of "market conditions."

Laurel Park is seeking to compete for the Anne Arundel license with the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which has proposed an elaborate casino at Arundel Mills Mall. That proposal is tied up in a zoning fight.

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