The state's ailing racing industry received a late-session boost by the Maryland legislature today with a package that includes reducing the winner's share of every dollar bet by two cents.
By a vote of 82 to 37, the House of Delegates agreed with the Senate that bettors should win 83, rather than 85 cents, of each dollar wagered. The extra two cents would go directly to the owners of the state's four thoroughbred racetracks: Pimlico, Laurel, Bowie and Timonium.
Of the 17 cents taken out of the bettor's winnings, 7 cents would go to the tracks, 5 cents to jockeys and horse owners, 4 cents to the state and 1 cent to the horse breeders.
The legislative package, which is expected to be signed shortly by Gov. Harry Hughes, also would allow some Sunday racing. Hughes has not involved himself personally in this year's racetrack bills, unlike last year when he unveiled an ambitious bail-out plan for the tracks late in the session. His plan to consolidate the four tracks into two was not passed, but racetrack owners have kept up their pressure for financial help.
Several legislators took up the track owners' pleas for relief. The owners blame inflation, and its effect on wages, for raising their costs dramatically while attendance at some tracks has dropped.
"It costs more for paint, it costs more for unions, it costs more to fix up the track," said Del. Paul E. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), chairman of a racing subcommittee and the industry's most vocal supporter in the House. "The tracks are in trouble and they need help . . . "
Under the package, Sunday racing would be permitted at the Timonium fairgrounds on the two Sundays each fall when the state fair is held. Additionally, the state's racing commission would be permitted to grant Sunday racing at harness tracks. That bill was aimed specifically at the Free State harness racetrack at Laurel, which lost a quarter of a million dollars last year. The legislature was told the track could recoup almost that much in a week if it were allowed to run horses on Sundays.
Opponents jeered this year's proposals as "anticonsumer." Others questioned the morality of racing on Sunday, while still others argued that this package was a band-aid that merely would delay consolidation of the tracks.
"With all this Sunday racing, I think we'll have to move the pulpits to the racetracks," said Del. Isaiah Dixon (D-Baltimore).
Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), said the extra money for track owners amounted to "Robin Hood in reverse. It comes out of the pocket of the $2 bettor."
One bill in the package, approved by a 114-to-1 vote, would create a racing council with a mission of drawing more bettors to Maryland tracks through a public relations campaign. The council would cost the state and the track owners each $100,000. "It's possibly the one bill that can promote the industry and get it moving in the right direction," Weisengoff said.
Racing, which generates $600 million in Maryland annually, is the third largest industry in the state, trailing only Bethelehem Steel and Westinghouse Corp. The industry employs 12,000 persons, including breeders, jockeys, veterinarians and concessionaires.