ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 2 -- A controversial intertrack betting system advocated by the horse racing industry advanced in the Maryland Senate today after it was amended to strip the state Racing Commission of some of its authority to approve future innovations sought by the industry.
The emergency legislation would for the first time permit patrons at the Sports Palace at Laurel Race Course to watch races at Pimlico in Baltimore on large-screen televisions and bet on them from Laurel. Simulcasting, as it is known, would increase the overall handle at Laurel because it would allow wagering on days when there are no races being run there.
Simulcasting has spawned half a dozen political brush fires since it was first proposed last spring, and today's action, a precursor to a final vote on the bill in the Senate this week, represents a mixed decision for the state's racing industry.
While simulcasting would increase betting by an estimated $4.2 million during the Pimlico season, the amendments to the bill require General Assembly approval of other wagering and track matters that the Racing Commission can now decide.
"This does put a limitation on the future power of the Racing Commission, but I think that limitation is in the public's best interest," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), sponsor of the amendments.
But Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), racing's chief proponent in the legislature, termed the amendments "ridiculous."
"It's taking away all the authority of the Racing Commission," said Weisengoff, adding that when the bill is sent to the House, "we'll make it right, one way or the other."
Lapides said his amendments address "areas most subject to abuse" in the future and are needed because the Racing Commission "is not representing the public, they're representing the industry."
The amendments, adopted 26 to 17, would prohibit the Racing Commission from expanding intertrack wagering without approval by the legislature. Also, they would scale back the commission's authority in two other areas.
First, they would require that the introduction of breeds other than thoroughbreds at Maryland tracks be approved by the legislature. Currently, the Racing Commission is considering whether to allow Arabian horses to compete on Maryland tracks.
Second, the amendments would require legislative approval of any change in the type of wagering permitted at Maryland tracks. That would include additional betting formulas, such as the once-popular "Pick 6" and the "Double Triple" that is popular now.
The simulcasting issue has been controversial since it was first proposed as a regulatory change by racing magnate Frank De Francis last spring. The Department of Licensing and Regulation first denied the request, then approved it as an emergency measure, which required the approval of a legislative committee.
When legislators questioned whether it was a true emergency, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said that it was but that it was a "close call." Then a De Francis partner donated $1,000 to the Baltimore City Council campaign of the legislative committee chairman, raising questions about whether he was trying to influence the committee's approval.
When it appeared that simulcasting might be adopted by the Racing Commission as a normal regulation, without legislative approval as an emergency regulation, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Clinton) drafted the bill that could take the issue out of the commission's hands.