11/26/2001 1:00AM

Maryland panel has own plan


The Maryland Racing Commission voted on Monday to support a legislative package that would dramatically change how simulcasting is conducted in the state - possibly to the detriment of the Maryland Jockey Club.

The legislative package would rescind the so-called "6:15 law," divert escrowed money to Thoroughbred purses, allow harness tracks to take Thoroughbred simulcast signals, and call for a $10 million purse supplement for Thoroughbred and harness horses, attendees of the meeting said.

The commission made the decision to support the package after harness and Thoroughbred interests said Monday that they have been unable to reach an agreement on how to split up simulcasting revenue in the state, a source of mounting frustration for commissioners and Maryland legislative leaders.

The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel and Pimlico, is expected to oppose the package, officials said. Joe De Francis, president of the MJC, has opposed elements of the package in the past.

"The concepts sound good, but there are a lot of legal and technical issues, so we'd have to wait for the specific legislation before I make a comment on it one way or the other," De Francis said in a telephone interview following the meeting.

Earlier this year, the Maryland legislature voted down a proposal to renew a $10 million purse supplement to the horse racing industry because of infighting between the breeds, tracks, and horsemen. The loss of the supplement led to drastic cuts in racing programs and stakes races at MJC tracks, at a time when betting in the state was already declining.

The elimination of the 6:15 law, which prohibits harness tracks from operating before 6:15 p.m., would likely create a simulcasting free-for-all that could have a heavy impact on revenues for the MJC by allowing harness tracks to capitalize on the popularity of Thoroughbred simulcasts.

Under an agreement reached last year that harness tracks have said is unfair, the Thoroughbred industry was allowed to keep 80 percent of all simulcasting revenues before 6:15, with 20 percent going to harness interests. After 6:15, when harness racing is traditionally conducted, the percentages reversed, on the basis that the majority of money from the more popular Thoroughbred signals should go to the Thoroughbred industry.

The MJC would also lose money from an escrow fund that was established last year to provide backing for capital improvements out of an increase in the takeout rate. The MJC has yet to start any extensive renovations, and the commissioners' plan would have that money diverted instead to purses.

* Also at the meeting, the commission approved the MJC's request for a 13-week meeting at Laurel Park, beginning Jan. 1, 2002, and ending March 31.