Tracks Win, Owners Lose Under New Maryland Slots Proposal

Purses at Maryland's racetracks will fall well short of the mark sought by horse owners in the state under new slot machine legislation proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Wednesday night.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said on Thursday morning he has not yet seen the details in Ehrlich's proposal but that it "obviously falls significantly short" in terms of purse revenue horse owners were hoping to receive.

According to a report in the Baltimore Sun, Ehrlich's new proposal slashes the percentage going to purses from 8% to 4% while nearly doubling what racetracks will receive, 46% compared to 25% in the original proposal. Maryland's educational system receives less under Ehrlich's new plan, going from 64% to 44%.

"It's no secret what we asked for," Hoffberger said. "We have $35 million in purses today, and we were shooting for an additional $70 million, giving us total annual purse distribution of about $100 million and making us competitive with New York and Kentucky. That would come out to about $400,000 a day in purses for 220 days of live racing. We didn't come up with the numbers by picking them out of the air. We looked at the competitive market and asked what we need to keep the 20,000 racing industry jobs here in Maryland. We don't want people deciding they want to run their horses somewhere else."

Hoffberger said he was more concerned about the dollar amounts than the percentages in Ehrlich's proposal, which calls for 3,500 slot machines each at the Thoroughbred tracks Pimlico and Laurel Park, 3,500 at harness track Rosecroft, and 3,000 at a proposed track in Allegany County. "It depends on the projections for net revenue," he said. The original plan was based on $1.1 billion in annual net revenue.

According to veterinarian R. Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, the new language would add approximately $40 million to Maryland Thoroughbred purses. Bowman said the breeders organization would support the bill. "I am disappointed purses are not higher," Bowman added.

Tracks would pay a smaller up-front license fee under the new plan: $40 million each instead of the original $100 million per track. The plan also calls for each track to spend a minimum of $100 million on capital investments and to continue live racing.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, indicated the numbers in Ehrlich's proposal were not set in stone. "Once we committed solely to the racetracks," Currie told the Sun newspaper, "they were in the driver's seat. This is just the beginning on the process. I'm sure some of these percentages will change."