Gov. Harry Hughes today proposed reorganizing Maryland's troubled racing industry and closing Thoroughbred tracks at Bowie and at the Timonium Fairgrounds in Baltimore County.
Hughes' proposal, which has been endorsed by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City) and Senate President James Clark (D-Howard), would extend thoroughbred racing at the state's two remaining one-mile tracks, Laurel and Pimilico in Baltimore, and would provide funds for upgrading the tracks' facilities.
The legislation also would incease by 60 the number of racing days at the state's three harness tracks at Rosecroft near Oxon Hill, Free State in Laurel and Ocean Downs on the Eastern Shore.
The governor's racing plan, the result of two months of meetings with legislative leaders and a decade of controversy over state racing, is meant to save an industry that contributes more than $600 million a year to the state's economy but which, in recent years, has been threatened with financial ruin because of increasing expenses and losses.
"There is significant evidence that racing in Maryland is in trouble," Hughes said. "Every study over the last 15 years or has recommended that thoroughbred racing be consolidated at two tracks . . . it's time we take the bull by the horns and get the job done."
The governor and legislative leaders acknowledged, however, that the consolidation proposal would be difficult to get through the General Assembly, if only because of the many competing and powerful interests involved in racing.
"The horsemen are against it," said Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Balitmore), who has taken a leading role in the legislature's consideration of racing matters. Weisengoff, who said he had his own deep reservations about Hughes' plan, added that "if the entire leadership gets behind this 1,000 percent, it would have a 50-50 chance. This is just not something that's easy to pass."
Already, Sen. Edward T. Conroy (D-Prince George's), who represents Bowie, said he found the proposal "difficult to support." Racing is popular among many residents of Bowie, but is also opposed by others who resent the traffic congestion around the track site. "Our greatest concern is what will happen next to the property," Conroy said.
Sen. Melvin Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), the chairman of the Senate Committee that will consider the legislation, said he thought consolidation was "only a temporary stopgap" and added that the proposal would likely "have very rough sledding" in his panel.
Hughes' plan is based on the theory that if thoroughbred racing is limited to two tracks instead of four, the profits of the tracks will rise while expenses will decrease for horsemen and others involved in the industry.
The legislation calls for the state to buy from the track's owners the 96 days of racing that the Bowie track is now allowed for a price of up to $6 million, and distribute the days equally between Pimilico and Laurel. In Maryland, the state controls the number of racing days a track may have, and the days have become financial entities in themselves that are sometimes bought and sold.
The state also would distribute the 42 days now allowed to the half mile track of Timonium equally between Laurel and Pimlico. Timonium, which is operated by a board of directors that governs the Timonium Fairgrounds, would be given a $400,000 grant by the state to make up for its lost racing.
Prince George's County and Balitmore County also would be compensated under the plan for the amusement tax revenues they will lose if the tracks close, Hughes said.
Al Karwacki, the manager of the Bowie track, and Howard Mosner, the manager of Timonium, said they had not had a chance to study Hughes' proposal and support for it by their tracks would depend on the specific provisions. Karwacki said, however, that the Bowie owners were willing to sell their racing days for $6 million.
In addition to closing Bowie and Timonium and transferring their days, Hughes' plan proposes upgrading Laurel and Pimlico. The backstretch of the Laurel track would be renovated, and a small park would be constructed around Pimlico to serve as a "buffer" between the track and the surrounding nieghborhood.
Because both tracks would become almost year-round operations under the plan, administration officials said they also expected Laurel's owners would install air conditioning in the clubhouse area for summer racing days.
Another proposal calls for the state to begin paying the salaries of some employes at the racetracks. Under the current system, the judges of races are officially state employes, but the tracks reimburse the state for their salaries.
The track renovations and other changes would be financed in part by increasing the percentage of the betting take that is now divided between the state, the tracks and the horsemen. Under the plan, the percentage share would be increased from 15 to 16.6 percent on so-called straight bets -- or routine wagers for win, place and show.
This change, which would decrease betting payoffs somewhat, would raise about $1.5 million, administration officials said.