Thoroughbred-Harness Dispute in Maryland Rankles Commission

Exasperated by the state racing industry's continued bickering and failure to work together, the Maryland Racing Commission on Monday ordered the Thoroughbred and harness factions to resolve conflicts in two weeks or face punitive action that could lead to the denial of racing dates.

Animosity among the disparate factions, long simmering in private, boiled over into public view at the commission's monthly meeting at Laurel Park. Toward the end of the contentious gathering, the commissioner Terry Saxon said that it would be "absolute folly" to continue discussions as long as the parties were so divided in their positions.

"You guys have got to get together to move this industry forward," said Lou Ulman, chairman of the commission. "I'm real unhappy with the direction I see things going. I blame that on everybody in the industry."

The urgency for resolving conflicts is a letter that Casper Taylor, speaker of the state house of representatives, sent in May to Ulman urging unity by Nov. 1. The implied threat, as seen by the commissioners and others in the industry, is that continued in-fighting would result in the state legislature's failing for the second year in a row to authorize a multi-million-dollar grant to bolster purses.

The fractures run deep within the industry in Maryland, but the issues that erupted before the commissioners involved discord between the harness and Thoroughbred factions. They agreed last year to split revenue from in-state betting 80-20, with 80 percent to Thoroughbred racing and 20 percent to harness interests.

The agreement was supposed to promote growth by joint marketing, construction of off-track-betting facilities and creation of a telephone-betting system. It was also supposed to promote unity.

Revenue sharing has been a "dismal failure," said Tom Chuckas, general manager of Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in southern Maryland.

Chuckas said that the agreement has cost his track $437,000 this year. He has cut and consolidated staff, reduced costs in other areas, slashed purses and eliminated racing days. Chuckas received permission from the commission to race two nights instead of three in November and December.

On the other hand, Joe De Francis, head of the company that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, said that ending the agreement would cost the Thoroughbred industry $7 million a year in proceeds from wagering in Maryland.

Another dispute is the so-called 6:15 law, a convoluted concept that gives the harness industry, which races at night, the right to shut down the Thoroughbred operation after 6:15 p.m. Chuckas said that the harness side would give that up in return for the right to negotiate its own deals for Thoroughbred simulcasts, independent of De Francis's Maryland Jockey Club.

Alan Foreman, lawyer for the Thoroughbred horsemen's association, described the harness-Thoroughbred dispute this way: "The fundamental barrier to growth in this business is that the two [sides] are forced into a marriage they no longer want to be in. They want a divorce."

The commission also imposed another deadline, this one on the Maryland Jockey Club. It gave MJC officials until the end of this week to show that its telephone-betting arrangement with the Television Games Network does not violate state law.

Maryland subscribers to TVG, the 24-hour racing network on cable and satellite, wager through TVG's hub in Oregon. Maryland law states that wagers must be funneled through a state track.