Legislation that would bail out the state's troubled thoroughbred racing industry by offering $10.8 million in tax breaks to increase purses and improve facilities entered the homestretch yesterday, passing a House committee unamended.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 21 to 2 to back a Senate-approved bill negotiated by the General Assembly leadership and the owners of Pimlico and Laurel race tracks.

The bill cuts the state take on parimutuel wagering from 4.09 percent to 0.5 percent and reverts the $10.8 million in tax savings back to the tracks. The money would be used to promote thoroughbred racing and make Maryland more competitive with out-of-state tracks.

The legislation also includes accountability language, requiring the tracks to report to the General Assembly how the tax-break money is spent.

Horse racing is Maryland's third largest industry, employing about 17,000 people. Racing and horse breeding inject $905 million annually to the state's economy, according to Department of Economic and Community Development officials.

During discussion of the bill, Delegate Idamae Garrott (D-Montgomery) said she opposed the racing bail because it would create a windfall for the already wealthy owners of Pimlico and Laurel.

But Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), a staunch defender of the racing industry, pointed out that New Jersey's tax is already 0.5 percent, and that Maryland is just "leveling out the playing field."