10/21/2002 11:00PM

Brief era ends with sale of Rosecroft

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TUCSON, Ariz. - One of racing's most unusual experiments came to a close last week, when the nation's only major track owned and operated by horsemen was sold to a private operator.

How and why it was sold is a fascinating story.

Seven years ago, the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, a horsemen's organization whose membership has ranged from 900 to 1,100 in recent years, purchased the assets and liabilities of Rosecroft Raceway, in Fort Washington, Md., on the Beltway just outside of Washington, D.C., for some $13 million.

Cloverleaf formed a management company of its members, headed by one of them, Gerald Brittingham, an experienced retired Washington-area real estate executive. It hired Tom Chuckas Jr., a young and progressive racing executive with solid parimutuel background, as CEO to run the track on a day-to-day basis. Things went well for five years, until internal dissension and apathy set in. Fewer than a third of Cloverleaf's thousand or so members voted in the association's last election.

Neighboring Delaware has slots at its three tracks, and Maryland racing, harness and Thoroughbred, has felt intense pressure. Maryland's governor adamantly opposes slots, and the state's harness and Thoroughbred horsemen have been unable to forge an amicable working relationship.

Some Cloverleaf members wanted to sell, and with a new governor to be elected next month and both gubernatorial candidates in neighboring Pennsylvania favoring slots at tracks there, four buyers stepped forward. Cloverleaf heard presentations from three of them that operate harness tracks: Magna Entertainment, which includes The Meadows in Pennsylvania and soon Flamboro Downs in Ontario among its properties; Greenwood Racing, the operator of Philadelphia Park and a partner in Freehold Raceway in New Jersey; and Centaur Inc., a minority owner with Churchill Downs in Hoosier Park in Indiana.

After hearing the proposals, the 17-member board of Cloverleaf, the track's stockholders, voted to sell the track, with a two-thirds majority vote needed by the successful buyer.

Last week's meeting began at 2 p.m. and lasted until 12:35 the next morning, with a recess for some of the members to race their horses that evening. Before and after the recess, neither Magna nor Greenwood could garner the 12 votes needed to grant one of them the sale. Finally, in a compromise, the board voted 13-4 to sell to Centaur on the 10th ballot.

Brittingham said Centaur had repeatedly agreed to go back and consider demands of the horsemen. Its offer of $55.4 million - $10 million for the track and the rest in guaranteed purses for 10 years - was $13 million less than Magna's, but Brittingham said Magna's Thoroughbred ties to Cloverleaf's adversarial neighbor, the Maryland Jockey Club, concerned the board. Many were surprised, thinking that partnership could have ended the state's Thoroughbred-harness strife.

Brittingham believed in Cloverleaf's ability to run Rosecroft successfully from day one, but he says the experience was an eye-opener. He believes virtually all horsemen's associations have a potential weakness in that they are operated by volunteers, who become disenchanted by skirmishes and beleaguered when they try to benefit the majority and not the few. He also thinks many horsemen have an inherent distrust of people they work with, and a lack of trust in themselves. He feels Rosecroft's personnel did an outstanding job running the track, and he was the last of the board to agree to sell.

When Cloverleaf gained permission of the Maryland Racing Commission to buy Rosecroft seven years ago, the commission's chairman at the time, Jack Mosner, asked Brittingham how he planned to keep horsemen on the backstretch from interfering with operations on the front side.

"I'll build a six-foot fence," Brittingham told him. He remembered that conversation last week, and now says "the fence needs to be 60 feet high, or maybe 600."

If he were to do it again, Brittingham said he would have lawyers set up a corporate structure to insulate management from attempts by the backstretch to micromanage the business.

Recently in these pages, Andrew Beyer asked whether Rosecroft was worth saving, either by the promise of slots or by new management. The answer lies in another question: Were Charles Town or Mountaineer Park or Prairie Meadows or Delaware Park worth saving? Breed bias is not the proper basis for the answer.

The thousands of horsemen who race at those tracks, and those who have made their livings at Rosecroft for 53 years, provide a more valid answer.