ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 25 -- A divided Maryland legislative committee today approved a plan for the state's first intertrack betting system, allowing racing fans at Laurel Race Course next month to watch and wager on races being run at Pimlico.
By an 8-to-7 vote, the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review committee approved a proposal that, beginning Sept. 8, allows fans at Laurel's Sports Palace to watch Pimlico races on large-screen televisions and have their bets counted along with those at the Baltimore race track.
The surprising vote came after a personal appeal from Maryland racing magnate Frank De Francis -- a part owner of both tracks -- and after a leading opponent of the plan switched his vote and supplied the winning margin.
"In our parlance, it's called a photo finish," De Francis said after the vote. "But it's a win."
The measure approved yesterday would mean higher revenue for De Francis' tracks. De Francis said he hopes to attract racing fans mostly in the Washington area who ordinarily would not drive more than an hour from downtown Washington to Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore, but would be willing to bet on races at Laurel, closer to the Washington area, and watch the thoroughbreds on television.
Intertrack betting also should mean a modest increase in revenue for the state government. The District and Virginia don't have horse racing, but Maryland competes for lottery dollars with Washington, and Virginia voters will soon decide whether to have a lottery.
De Francis called the intertrack proposal a six-week experiment that will determine whether the simulcast betting would draw additional fans to Laurel without reducing attendance at Pimlico.
De Francis said simulcast has been highly successful in states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the question is whether it would be as profitable in Maryland, where the distance between the two tracks is only 30 miles. But he said he has studies that show that more than 75 percent of the fans who attend races at Laurel don't go to Pimlico, and he wants to give those fans a chance to bet on Pim- lico races while in Laurel's high-tech Sports Palace.
This fall will be the ideal time, De Francis has said, because fans already come to the Sports Palace to watch football games on the big-screen televisions. The racing commission has estimated that intertrack betting will mean $4.2 million in wagering at Laurel during the six-week Pimlico season. The Laurel track would make nearly $376,000 after expenses, of which about $386,000 would go for purses and $21,000 would go to the state's racing tax revenue.
De Francis said if the experiment proves profitable, he might build a sports palace at Pimlico where fans could watch races run at Laurel. Races are never held at both tracks on the same day.
The committee's approval of the regulations was needed before the Maryland Racing Commission could implement the regulations on an emergency basis. Several members sharply questioned whether the request constituted an emergency and some said the simulcast proposal was far from what the General Assembly intended when it approved a bill on the last day of the 1984 session that allowed telephone betting.
Sen. James C. Simpson (D-Charles), one of the cochairmen of the committee, was one who was most adamant that the proposal went too far. "I don't see any emergency, and I don't think this was contemplated by the legislature," Simpson said at the beginning of the meeting. He said the proposal would set up Pimlico as the "only legalized bookmaking system in the state of Maryland."
But after De Francis' presentation and a review of a state attorney general's opinion that said the proposal was within the law, Simpson surprised those in the audience by saying he would vote for the proposal. He said it was clear the racing commission ultimately could enact the regulations, and that by voting against the proposal he would only be delaying its implementation.
The other cochairman, Del. Larry Young (D-Baltimore), refused to vote on the proposal. Last week, Young returned a $1,000 contribution to his campaign for president of the Baltimore City Council that came from one of the track owners, but he said that had nothing to do with his decision to skip a vote on the controversial issue. Young said he never intended to vote on the issue. "I've never been that excited about racing, period," he said in explaining his decision.
Others criticized Department of Licensing and Regulation Secretary William A. Fogle Jr., who regulates the racing industry in the state, for forwarding the proposal as an emergency regulation.
But De Francis and his supporters relied on an opinion by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran that said the proposal was covered by the 1984 law, although it was a "close call."
De Francis said he already has spent $20,000 for a system of microwave and telephone links that will broadcast the Pimlico races to Laurel, which is located in northern Anne Arundel County where Prince George's and Howard counties meet. Fans, after paying for admission and parking, would watch and wager on the the races in the high-tech Sports Palace, where they currently can watch races being run at Laurel or other sporting events.