Maryland Factions Still Can't Agree on Plan

At the risk of losing even more credibility with state lawmakers and despite a deadline imposed by the Maryland Racing Commission, the state's racing industry acknowledged Monday it has not made peace among the ranks. If anything, the disparate factions demonstrated that resolving their disputes is a longshot.

Disputes between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred segments over revenue-sharing, simulcasting, and off-track betting remained unresolved.

"We can't get together on anything," racing commissioner Terry Saxon said. "That's mind-boggling. ... It's shameful."

At its meeting in late October, the commissioners ordered industry leaders to resolve their Thoroughbred-harness differences within two weeks. The urgency was a letter from Casper Taylor Jr., speaker of the House of Delegates, imploring the industry to solve its problems and unite. The implied threat was if it didn't, it would lose any chance of regaining a state grant for purses.

Horsemen, breeders, and track owners held several meetings but reached no agreement. "There's so much mistrust. ... I don't think anyone wants to agree at this point," said Mike Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

The commission approved a Wednesday-through-Sunday racing schedule at Laurel Park through March. But it did not consider summer dates because horsemen and Maryland Jockey Club cannot agree on when to shut down for the meet at Colonial Downs in Virginia. They couldn't agree last year, either.

They did agree, however, to eliminate 11 stakes and cut the purses of nine others during the first three months of 2002. Those cuts follow severe reductions in the stakes program because of the loss this year of the state's $10-million purse supplement.

At the close of the meeting, commissioner Erwin Mendelson said: "This is all going downhill."

In other business, the racing commission began the final phase of its hearing on construction of a racetrack in western Maryland.

William Rickman Jr. and his father, William Rickman Sr., have proposed a small track off Interstate 86 in eastern Allegany County. It would feature Thoroughbred and harness racing three weeks a year, offer simulcast betting 363 days a year, and be subsidized by off-track-betting parlors elsewhere in the state. The Rickmans own Delaware Park in Delaware, and Ocean Downs, a harness track on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

William Rickman Jr. told commissioners that the track would feature a 40,000-square-foot main building with 700 seats, another 300 seats on the track apron, and 200 more under a clubhouse tent. The racing surface would be a combined three-quarter-mile oval with a quarter-mile lead-in chute.

Bill Fasy, who would be the track's chief operating officer, said it would race Thoroughbreds 15 days and Standardbreds six days. Thoroughbred purses would be $152,000 per day, and Sstandardbred purses would be $66,000 per day, he said.

The racing commission has granted preliminary approval to the track. As it has from the outset, opposition from western Maryland residents surfaced.

"We are drawing a line and saying, 'No more gambling,' " said Mike Huskins, an Allegany County minister. "We're going to fight you at every step to make this thing fail."