The Maryland Racing Commission on Nov. 27 granted the first new license to operate a racetrack in the state in more than 50 years.
The commission gave the go-ahead to William Rickman Jr. and his father, William Rickman Sr., to build a small track in mountainous western Maryland. The last new licenses issued were in 1949 for the Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs harness tracks.
The Rickmans, who own Ocean Downs and Delaware Park near Wilmington, Del., must obtain numerous county and state permits before construction begins. Once that permit process is completed -- it could be lengthy because of opposition by Allegany County residents -- the track would be built within two years.
The license to operate a Thoroughbred track changes the landscape of Maryland racing. It threatens the virtual monopoly of the Maryland Jockey Club, whose president and chief executive officer, Joe De Francis, operates Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.
In fact, the very idea of a new track in Maryland was floated by Gov. Parris Glendening as a rebuke to De Francis for aggressively supporting Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Glendening's Republican opponent, in the 1998 election.
How much competition, if any, the Rickmans will provide De Francis is unclear. Last year, the Rickmans bought Ocean Downs, a harness track on Maryland's Eastern Shore. They plan on opening an off-track-betting center in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore in the coming year.
In conjunction with their track in western Maryland, the Rickmans plan on constructing two other OTB parlors in the state.
Their plans seem aggressive, especially in light of problems riddling the MJC. The MJC is partners in a revenue-sharing agreement with Rosecroft Raceway, but the parties are mired in disputes that hinder any expansion of racing or the development of their own OTB parlors.
Rickman and De Francis pledged to work together for the benefit of Maryland racing.
"I don't want to do anything to hurt the Maryland Jockey Club," William Rickman Jr. said. "I will work with them."
The proposed track off Interstate 68 in Allegany County would offer year-round simulcasting and only 21 live racing days per year -- 15 for Thoroughbreds and six for Standardbreds.
Rickman said he didn't know whether those brief meets would take place in the summer or fall. Either way, he said, the Thoroughbred meet would not compete directly with the MJC. He would probably conduct Thoroughbred racing when Pimlico and Laurel Park are closed. (This year, it was in the summer.)
"We've never had an objection to a racetrack in Allegany County," De Francis said. "Our objections had always been with Mr. Rickman's original proposal to build a track that would lose money, and to pay for it with OTBs in central Maryland."
Parlors in central Maryland would cannibalize business at Pimlico and Laurel Park, De Francis said. As long as Rickman builds no competing OTB parlors, De Francis said, "we wish him good luck with his Allegany venture. We hope it succeeds."
Rickman said his plans for OTB parlors, other than the one in Cambridge, are up in the air.
"I think competition is good," Rickman said. "If we build a nice OTB in Cambridge, maybe that will entice the Maryland Jockey Club to build a nice one elsewhere."
Opponents of the Rickman track fear it will end up as an emporium of slot machines or full-fledged casino gambling. Rickman, whose Delaware Park offers slot machines, said that he will not lobby for slots in Maryland.
"There'll be enough people leading the charge," he said. "If they do come to Maryland it will be to my detriment (in Delaware). But this isn't about slot machines. This is really about horse racing."
David Brigham, spokesman for Citizens Against the Racecourse, disagreed. He said the Rickman pursuit of the track license in western Maryland was all about slots.
"What is this about if it's not about carving out territory?" Brigham said.