Purse Subsidy On Way in Maryland; No Decrease in Takeout

Maryland's beleaguered horse racing industry will begin receiving about $4.5 million in purse money from the state sometime after July 1. Racing leaders aren't sure how the money will be dispensed, but it will be available during the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2002, and ends June 30, 2003.

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the money will allow the MJC to reinstate some stakes this summer and fall, and perhaps to increase overnight purses modestly.

Racing in Maryland lost its $10-million annual grant from the state last year, and it seemed as if no purse subsidy would be forthcoming this year. But Sen. Thomas Bromwell, who chairs the legislature's finance committee, filed the $4.5-million purse bill toward the end of the session. Thoroughbred racing will receive 70% of the funds, and Standardbred racing 30%.

Though the money will technically come from the state, it is actually money raised from increased pari-mutuel takeout at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. Money from the takeout hike was supposed to back the sale of bonds to pay for track improvements.

The state never sold the bonds and the improvement plan was disbanded. But the takeout increase--about 1.5%--was not rescinded. Lawmakers might have absorbed the proceeds into the state budget if not for Bromwell's bill.

In effect, Maryland gamblers will subsidize purses through their wagers.

"That's just larceny for another year," said Bob Beck, a retired teacher from Maryland who bets regularly at Laurel Park. "The bettor is always screwed."

Meanwhile, the MJC has boarded up Pimlico's infield toteboard and replaced it with a 26-by-32-foot video screen. The screen does not display as much information as the toteboard, and it is difficult to see, especially in late-afternoon sunlight.

Raffetto defended the decision to install the screen. He said the old toteboard was antiquated, and that the video screen is "state of the art."