07/22/2008 12:00AM

Desperate step in Maryland

Email

TUCSON, Ariz. - In a week in which the California Horse Racing Board stiffened penalties for steroid use and then welcomed the beauteous Bo Derek as its newest member, it was understandable why a hugely significant development in the East received far less notice than it deserved.

In Maryland, the state racing commission launched American simulcasting on a new course, in an arrangement that horsemen have feared since simulcasting's inception a quarter of a century ago.

Rosecroft Raceway sits in a picturesque little valley of its own, just off the Beltway that circles the nation's capital. Sixty years ago, it was the breeding and racing farm of W.E. Miller, an early pioneer of harness racing in Maryland. His son, John, and grandson, Bill, subsequently operated the track, followed by a succession of owners, winding up with the present operators, Cloverleaf Enterprises.

Cloverleaf is a horsemen's association, and Rosecroft is operated by horsemen. It is a rarity in that regard, and without slot machines but surrounded by states and tracks with them, it has fallen on hard times. Half a century ago it was a horseman's dream, a peaceful, pleasant, and prosperous place that featured races for 2-year-olds and drew scores of them from some of the best racing stables in the country, which sent their colts and fillies down from New York and Pennsylvania to learn their early lessons in the quietude of the relaxing track.

Rosecroft's chief executive officer for the last decade, Tom Chuckas Jr., moved on recently, taking the reins at nearby Pimlico and Laurel, the Maryland Jockey Club's Thoroughbred tracks.

Returning from retirement to replace him was Ted Snell, a longtime racing executive with harness, Thoroughbred, and greyhound credentials who once was a state senator in New Hampshire and also a former president and COO of Rosecroft. He knows racing and he knows politics, and he and Cloverleaf's able president, Kelley Rogers, visited the Maryland Racing Commission last week to let them know that Rosecroft was in financial trouble and needed the commission's help.

They got it, in startling fashion, in a move that surprised some who thought a track run by horsemen never would consent to give up live racing for simulcasting. It is a fear of horsemen across America.

Cloverleaf's horsemen, it so happens, still have hopes and aspirations for racing success. They cannot be thrilled with developments, but they hopefully are pragmatists who understand that all roads end somewhere, and when they do you had better make a turn.

Rogers and Snell told the Maryland commission that without its assistance the end of the road was near. The commissioners, under chairman John Franzone, understood that. Franzone said without it Rosecroft would become an apartment complex, and the commissioners took dramatic and unprecedented action.

They told Cloverleaf it could simulcast at Rosecroft for the next two years, without live racing.

Rogers, Snell, Rosecroft's horsemen, and the commission believe that Maryland's voters will approve racinos and casinos in the coming November election. Rosecroft is not one of the sites chosen for a racino in Maryland, although it should have been, but the proposed law wisely provides that all Maryland tracks will share in the slots revenue.

Rosecroft's horsemen at least still own a revenue-generating operation. They are better off than those in Montreal, where big Hippodrome de Montreal went bankrupt and closed in recent weeks, leaving horsemen there high and dry. They are also better off than the hundreds of harness horsemen in the Canadian province of Alberta, where Northlands Park in Edmonton recently abandoned the sport to race only Thoroughbreds.

If Maryland gets slots in November, and prosperity or at least stability returns, Rosecroft could restore live racing. If not, its harness horsemen will have to be absorbed elsewhere. Fortunately, unlike Montreal or Edmonton, they have multiple options - not all convenient or available - up and down the East Coast. But displacement and relocation bring hardship. The Maryland horsemen are out of business at their home track, and not everyone can or will pick up like gypsies and roam, Besides, the Eastern tracks have their own horsemen already on hand.

At the moment this is a harness racing problem. Economic woes. however, exist across breed lines, and across the gaping divide between the haves and have-not tracks, those with and without slots. That dichotomy will not disappear. Rosecroft may be the first, but is not likely to be the last, facing an agonizing Solomonic choice on live racing.