New Maryland Track Granted Preliminary Approval

After the Maryland Jockey Club agreed to drop its opposition, the Maryland Racing Commission granted preliminary approval March 30 to William Rickman Jr.'s bid to build a horse track in Western Maryland.

Representatives of the MJC stopped fighting the proposal after Rickman, owner of Delaware Park and Ocean Downs, secured a $20 million line of credit for Allegany Racing Association. That is the entity composed of Rickman and his father, William Rickman, that proposes to construct the track at the eastern edge of Allegany County.

Although commissioners voted 6-0 in support of the track, they did not issue Rickman a license to construct and operate it. They merely gave him the go- to finalize a design, construction schedule and operating plan.

Rickman has six months to do that. At some later date, the commission would conduct hearings before deciding whether to issue a license.

However, commissioners made their priorities clear by agreeing unanimously that Rickman's proposal met the preliminary standards of being financially viable and the best interests of Maryland racing.

Their decision followed a day of back-room intrigue as Rickman and his representatives negotiated with officials of the Pimlico-Laurel Park-Rosecroft Raceway alliance over the economic viability of the track.

Even Rickman has said that a track in Western Maryland cannot be profitable without a supporting network of off-track-betting parlors. At the same time, Rickman has repeatedly said that money is no object. He has said that he and his father will spend whatever it takes to construct the track (estimated at $13.5 million) and then absorb whatever losses might accrue.

His securing the $20 million line of credit from the Wilmington Trust Co. in Delaware erased concerns about financial viability.

"We've never opposed a racetrack in Western Maryland," said Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. "Our issue has always been, if Mr. Rickman wants to build a racetrack and own the racetrack and operate the racetrack, then he should pay for it with his own money. He's got plenty of that."

Rickman has made millions with slot machines at Delaware Park. De Francis has lobbied unsuccessfully for slots at Pimlico and Laurel Park.

De Francis said that his opposition to Rickman's plan for the Western Maryland track was Rickman's related intention to build OTBs around the state. De Francis said that he did not want Rickman's OTBs siphoning off MJC business to subsidize an unprofitable track in Allegany County.

"This is a good result," De Francis said of Rickman's securing the line of credit. "It gives Mr. Rickman the ability to move forward . . . and gives us time to continue discussions to work out a mutually acceptable OTB solution."

De Francis said that he and Rickman have tried to agree upon locations and even discussed joint ventures for new OTBs.

We'd like to proceed on a cooperative basis as opposed to a competitive basis," De Francis said.

Meanwhile, before voting in support of the track, commissioners heard impassioned testimony from Allegany County residents. They questioned why a track should scar their community so that OTBs somewhere else could turn a profit.

"Put yourself in their place," said David Brigham, spokesman for Citizens Against the Racecourse. "Why does their community need to be turned upside-down so that other things can be done to make money?"