Maryland tracks sing
song of slots

Dec 2, 2003 7:15 AM

The lure of slot machines, as strong as the lunar tides, has pulled 12 panting applicants to Maryland to bid on Rosecroft Raceway, a pretty harness track located just off the Beltway that circles the nation’s capital.

Rosecroft opened as a pari-mutuel track in 1949, built and owned by horseman and furniture dealer William Miller. It was operated for four decades by Miller, his son John and his grandson Bill. After the grandson sold it, it went through several incarnations and wound up becoming the only harness track in America owned by a horsemen’s association, Cloverleaf Enterprises.

Last year Cloverleaf gave an option to an Indiana company called Centaur Inc. for $50 million or so. Centaur brought in mighty Delaware North for financing, but the romance faded and Centaur broke off the marriage. It did not find another partner, and missed a Nov. 1 deadline to exercise its option, whereupon Cloverleaf announced Centaur was out and had forfeited a $2 million deposit. That matter is in court.

Maryland’s new Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., announced he wanted slots at the state’s racetracks to help bolster the state’s budget, but his own party rebelled and the Democratic House speaker, Michael Busch, turned out to be as powerful as the governor. He blocked slots, and they have been stalemated ever since.

When Centaur failed to meet its November 1 deadline, Cloverleaf was free to seek other suitors, and 12 of them answered the call, hearing the coming clang of slots, or obviously believing that sooner or later the legislature will legalize them to keep Maryland afloat.

Tom Chuckas Jr., the CEO of Cloverleaf who runs the track, did not identify the eager dozen, but one of the group identified itself.

Louis Angelos, a lawyer in the law firm of his father, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, announced that he had put together a group of investors ”” not including his father, who is barred from track ownership by major league baseball edict ”” to buy the assets of Rosecroft.

Chuckas says Cloverleaf will select one of the dozen applicants by the middle of this month.

What happens after that is up to the governor and the legislature, or probably more accurately is up to Speaker Busch. He has turned out to be all-powerful in the matter, and he does not sound like a man ready to compromise.

The governor says he is, and that talks are progressing. Busch’s response to that was, "What talks?" He told Baltimore and Washington newspapers he knew of none, and sounded like a man not ready to play his cards.

All sorts of experts have suddenly appeared on the scene, claiming that Maryland can make a lot more money if it runs the slots themselves, rather than giving them to the state’s four tracks. Those tracks ”” Rosecroft, the Maryland Jockey Club duo of Laurel and Pimlico, home of the Preakness, second jewel of the Triple Crown, and Ocean Downs, a harness track on the Maryland vacation shore in Ocean City ”” are the backbone of a Maryland racing industry that has a rich and long history.

If they do not get help from slots, they and the major Maryland agricultural industry they support are in serious trouble.

Fueling the fire last week was a proposal from Carl A. J. Wright, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a close friend of the governor, that a new track and gaming complex be built in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which has been redeveloped in recent years into a major tourist and sports site.

Despite the power and intransigence of Michael Busch, the threat of a new downtown racetrack, and the economic palaver of experts who either dismiss or overlook the huge impact of Maryland’s horse industry, both on track and off, those hardy 12 entrepreneurs, presumably including a number of major Las Vegas gaming interests, are ready to put up big dollars for Rosecroft Raceway.

The moon is full and the tides run high, and the sirens sing their song of slots.