Marketing, Slots Getting Push in Maryland

by James Mosher
The head of a new Maryland panel designed to better market horse racing said he expects the state legislature to reach consensus on slot-machine legislation next year.

"I'm confident about a slots bill next year," said John Franzone, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission who is chairing a 15-member task force called "Keep It in Maryland." "It's got to happen soon. We can't wait another two years."

Franzone, speaking after the Oct. 23 meeting of the racing commission, said both top contenders in this year's race for governor--Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore--both support slot machines to boost business at racetracks such as Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park. Both houses of the legislature have passed slots bills over the past four years, but they've never agreed on a single measure.

Thomas "Mike" Miller Jr., president of the Senate, is a slots supporter while House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, though not a slots backer, has allowed slots legislation to be voted on in his chamber. Miller and Busch are both Democrats.

Some of the task force's work will involve looking for ways to increase industry revenue until slots come online, Franzone said. The group will also bring together past economic impact studies in trying to make a stronger case to lawmakers after the legislature reconvenes in January.

"The legislature still doesn't have an appreciation for how big this industry really is," he said.

Prominent members of the Thoroughbred industry serving on the task force include Lou Raffetto Jr., president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, the Magna Entertainment Corp. subsidiary that runs Pimlico and Laurel; Alan Foreman, chief counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, a group that represents horse owners and trainers; and Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. Leaders of Maryland's Standardbred industry will also be on the panel as well as state government officials including four members of the racing commission.

The commission is taking an unusual step, noted Dr. James Fielder Jr., secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and a task force member. The DLLR directly oversees the racing commission.

"This is the first time a commission is actively looking to promote and not just provide oversight," the secretary said during the Oct. 23 meeting, held at Safely Home Farm, a Baltimore County Thoroughbred breeding station. "It's an extraordinary step."

Franzone plans to follow the example set by John McDaniel, the racing commission's chairman. McDaniel's push for industry unity and "peace in the valley" resulted in a 15-year revenue sharing agreement between Thoroughbred and Standardbred interests signed earlier this year that eluded past commission leaders for years. The pact is believed to have improved the industry's standing in the eyes of legislators.

"It's going to be all about United We Stand," said Franzone, who is aiming for the task force to have its first meeting some time before the commission next meets Nov. 14.

McDaniel said he expects the new group's mission to extend beyond slot machines. "What it's really about is maintaining the economic engine," he said.

Franzone's positive slots forecast may already be circulating around Maryland. William Rickman Jr. has stepped up work on a planned Thoroughbred track in Western Maryland called Little Orleans, according to Peter Szymanski, general manager of Ocean Downs, an Eastern shore harness track. Among Rickman's properties are Ocean Downs as well as Delaware Park, an out-of-state Thoroughbred venue that has video lottery terminals. It is widely believed Little Orleans won't be completed without a slots license.

"Maybe (Rickman) knows something we don't," Szymanski said before the start of the meeting. Rickman didn't attend.

Rickman may try to capitalize on the growing popularity of turf racing by installing a grass course for the short meets he plans at Little Orleans, Szymanski said. He may also put in a synthetic surface, which would make Little Orleans the first Maryland venue to hold races on a synthetic surface.

Raffetto said the Maryland Jockey Club is close to settling a dispute with Penn National Gaming Inc. involving simulcasts and telephone account wagering. At September's commission meeting, Raffetto indicated the worst-case scenario might involve races from Penn National Race Course and Charles Town Races & Slots being blacked out at Maryland tracks and off-track betting parlors. Raffetto was much more upbeat Oct. 23.

"We're almost there in having this issue resolved," he said.