Ball of confusion:
Now it’s Rosecroft

Aug 31, 2004 6:44 AM

When the Olympics began, all those bike rides, javelin throws, missed relay baton passes, volleyball spikes and endless laps back, I mentioned getting water logged watching the frantic splashings of the swimmer-wrestlers of water polo.

As the games drew to a close, I watched — first fascinated and then frustrated and then furious — as NBC insisted on showing every diver from every country in every rotation, 3-meter and 10, taking a shower after each dive. I’m not sure if the network directors thought this was newsworthy or titillating to women viewers, or they were just entranced by the push-button showers, but I wound up with water in my ears and hair dripping wet from watching these guys.

After drying off, I grew puzzled by other non-Olympic events, trying to figure out what’s going on with the economics of buying and selling racetracks these days.

I understood the deal in the woods at Bangor, Maine, where Vegas promoter Shawn Scott made a quick buck buying the little track and selling it to Penn National after slots were legalized. I watched as he and Vestin Mortgage of Vegas repeated the act at Vernon Downs in central New York.

I realized what was happening in Pennsylvania, where thoroughbred and harness racing interests are battling to build new tracks (or rather racinos) with the coming of slots in the Keystone state.

But I am having a tougher time fathoming the scenario at Rosecroft Raceway on the busy beltway around the nation’s capital, or the strange turn of events at the venerable Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

At Rosecroft, the track is owned by its horsemen, an anomaly in racing. They have struggled with slots competition from three tracks in neighboring Delaware while Maryland has none, and they have suffered through a bruising battle between the governor of the state, Robert Ehrlich Jr., and the speaker of the Maryland House, Michael Busch, who has stifled every effort of the governor to get slots passed.

When the former governor — a bitter foe of slots — left office and Ehrlich took over, Maryland tracks appeared on the verge of a renaissance. Ehrlich is an advocate of slots, both to help the state and its racing industry. Mighty Magna Entertainment, realizing this, stepped in and bought control of Pimlico and Laurel, the state’s two thoroughbred tracks. As they did, Centaur of Indiana stepped in to buy Rosecroft. Centaur first enlisted the financial aid of mighty Delaware North, the huge sports concession company out of Buffalo, NY, but along the way Centaur grew disenchanted with its partner. Whatever the reason for the divorce, it left Centaur without the money to close the deal, and they lost their option and entered litigation.

Rosecroft, needing help, found it in friendly nearby hands, the hugely influential Baltimore lawyer and sportsman Peter Angelos, who owns the Baltimore Orioles. Baseball rules prohibit him — but not his family — from owning a racetrack. However, the rules do not stop him for using his clout to help lobby for slots. The Angelos family offered $13 million for Rosecroft, and the day seemed saved. Then, last week, Rosecroft’s horseman board announced it was ending the deal, unable to reach a satisfactory agreement that would ensure the long term continuation of racing. Maryland probably will get slots next year with Pennsylvania having them next door, and Rosecroft will have to hang on and hope.

In New Orleans, Churchill Downs had offered $45 million to buy the Fair Grounds from the Krantz family, which needed the money to pay its horsemen $25 million the horsemen won in court for an unpaid share of slots revenues. Instead, the Krantzs chose to take $25 million from major horse owner and multiple McDonald’s franchise holder Mike Pegram. For his money Pegram gets 80% control, and Bryan Krantz gets $200,000 a year for five years and a seat on the board.

It’s wild and wooly and even a bit weird in racetrack land these days.