Leaders of Maryland's normally fragmented harness horse racing industry joined to tell Gov. Harry Hughes today that they will oppose his plan to reorganize racing unless they receive state support to renovate their tracks and hold year-round harness races.
The costly demand by the harness representatives adds them to a growing list of racing interests lining up against Hughes' proposal. If the groups unite, legislative leaders said today, they could kill the governor's measure to consolidate throughbred racing at two tracks by closing facilities at Bowie and the Timonium fairgrounds outside Baltimore.
Harness track owners, breeders and horsemen who met with Hughes today said they wanted three extra months of harness racing days and financial support for winterizing Maryland's three harness tracks -- Free State Raceway in Laurel, Rosecroft in Oxon Hill and Ocean Downs Raceway on the Eastern Shore.
Without those additions to the bill Hughes introduced last week, "the package would be disatrous," said Frank DeFrancis, president of Free State. "If the bill is not modified, we will fight it," he added.
After the 45-minute meeting, which was requested by the harness representatives, Hughes aides said the governor had made no commitments on new state support for harness racing, but would consider the industry proposals. "I wouldn't describe him as recpetive on all points, or as totally unreceptive on some points," said Ejner Johnson, Hughes chief of staff.
Johnson said Hughes "would have to talk with legislative leaders" before agreeing to any changes in the legislation, which has been endorsed by House Speaker Benjamin Cardin (D-Baltimore), Senate President James Clark (D-Howard) and chairmen of the committees that will consider it.
Some of those legislative leaders today expressed concern that the mounting opposition from racing interests will doom the consolidation proposal. And several said Hughes had hurt the measure's chances by announcing his support for it before meeting with competing interest groups like the harness representatives which populate the $600 million-a-year racing industry.
"They're coming out of the woodwork now to oppose it because nobody knows what's happening," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Melvin Steinberg, one of the key legislators supporting Hughes proposal. "My apprehenbsion is that we won't have time to educate everyone, and time constraints will kill it."
In addition to harness interests, opponents of consolidation so far include several Prince George's County legislators, including Bowie Sen. Edward T. Conroy, and Baltimore County interests who believe their area should be compensated more for loss of their race tracks than Hughes' package provides.
The opposition emerging from the quarters, each with separate legislative allies, illustrates the way that deep seated divisions in Maryland's racing industry have traditionally complicated efforts at reform.
The harness industry's opposition is especially significant because Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), who chairs the House subcommittee on racing, has vowed to protect harness racing at all costs. Weisengoff, whose support is considered pivotal to passage of the pacakge, said today: "Consolidation is dead for now. Whether it will be revived or not, I don't know."
Within the harness industry, two competing horsemen's associations and the three tracks have in the past fought each other. But they said they have found unity in their opposition to the Hughes' plan. "The fact that we're all in the same room shows how serious we are," said DeFrancis, most outspoken of the track owners.
The harness representatives say they are asking for no more than equity with the thoroughbred segment of the industry, which they say has been unduly favored in the package.
For example, the package calls for the state to buy Bowie's racing days for $6 million, and expand the racing season at Laurel and Pimlico to extend the year. The added revenues from the longer season would be earmarked to aid expansion and renovation of the two tracks.
That would mean thoroughbreds would be racing at the Laurel track on the same day harness horses race at DeFrancis' Free State, also in Laurel.
For that and other reasons, the harness representatives said they need year-round racing to compete with thoroughbred tracks. The Hughes package would give them 66 more days, but the track owners and horsemen say that will do them no good.