Maryland legislators have approved measures that will increase the state's harness-racing season by 54 nights and should increase the quality of both thoroughbred and standardbred racing through higher purses.
The bills, the last of which passed the legislature at 11:45 p.m. Monday in the rush for adjournment, are expected to be routinely signed by Acting Gov. Blair Lee III. Unlike previous racing legislation, much of which was highly controversial, the bills were passed smoothly.
The purse structure will be increased approximately $22,000 per day at the thoroughbred tracks and approximately $4,500 per night at the harness tracks.
According to racing industry statistics, this means that the purse structure at a thoroughbred track such as Pimlico will rank 10th in the country, compared to its current 60th. At the harness tracks, the increase will make Rosecroft's minimum purse, for instance, equal to those at Brandywine Raceway in Wilmington, Del., a major competitor for horses and horsemen.
But the bettors will pay for the higher calibre of racing expected through higher taxation on trifecta and exacta wagering. The taxations, or takeout, on the two forms of exotic betting will be the same as in the neighboring states of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New jersey - 25 percent for trifectas, a nine percent increase; 19 percent on daily doubles and exactas, a three percent raise.
The 54 additional harness-racing dates were awarded to the racing commission, instead of the tracks. Theoretically, it could assign all 54 days to one track, but is likely to give each of the state's three harness tracks - Rosecroft, Laurel and Ocean Downs - 18 extra nights each.
This would give each track an 85 night meeting and could lead to a restructuring of the current local racing setup. Presently, Rosecroft runs its entire 67-night meet, followed by Laurel. Split meetings are a possibility.
Unlike the thoroughbred bill, which was passed Saturday, the harness bill will direct money into track improvements. That must be approved by the commission's Harness Racing Board.
In all, there were six major horse-racing bills before the legislature this session. Here is how they fared:
The two major bills passed resulting in the 54 extra harness-racing days and the larger purses for both thoroughbreds and the standardbreds were popularly called the "Horsemen's Bills." They were introduced by a splinter group of horsemen who recognized an earlier bill backed by the track owners could not get through the legislature.
An earlier bill that failed had called for the state to give up $6.8 million in racing taxation. As amemded, it still would have cost the state about $1 million. "It has no chance in an election year," said one interested party. The bill would have aided the tracks as well as the horsemen.
A bill was passed adding a qualification that racing commissioners cannot have been convicted of "any crime involving moral turpitude." The other qualifications require commissioners to be Maryland residents for five years, be qualified voters and at least 25 years old.
A bill seeking a 7 1/2 percent state withholding tax on top of 20 percent federal withholding tax on all payoffs exceeding $1,000 was never reported out of committee.
The so-called "Senior Citizens Bill," which would have given persons 65 and over free admission to the state's racetracks on Monday through Thursday, died in the final-night rush. It did not get up for the required third reading and final vote.
The immediate reaction of the racing industry was that the legislation passed helped the thoroughbred horsemen, but not the track owners. Under the owners' bill, they would have received windfall profits, critics said.
"It's like shaving your face on one side," said Ben Cohen, secretary-treasurer of Pimlico. "The tracks have increased costs, we lose business because of the increased takeout and get nothing but aplogies from men in the legislature who should know better.
"Ours is a $1/2 billion industry. The business we create far exceeds any money made from betting. It wasn't too long ago that it cost .8 of one cent to sell a $2 ticket. It now costs 4 cents to sell that same ticket. Does a parent of two children feed one and starve the other?"
Sources in Annapolis and close to the thoroughbred and standardbred industries say that the harness-racing men got what they wanted because of the united front they presented in Anapolis, as compared to the different factions of the thoroughbred industry.