04/22/2003 11:00PM

Mid-Atlantic tracks black out Hollywood

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The opening-day signal from Hollywood Park was blacked out at betting sites in six states in the mid-Atlantic Wednesday after negotiations on a simulcast contract between the tracks and Hollywood's parent company, Churchill Downs, broke down.

The talks were suspended just prior to the first race on the opening-day card from Hollywood and only a few days before two other Churchill-owned tracks, Calder Race Course and Churchill Downs, were scheduled to open their spring meets. The blackout will affect betting sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia, and New Jersey, and if negotiations are still stalled May 3, bettors in those states will not be able to wager on the Kentucky Derby.

Martin Lieberman, the executive director for the cooperative that negotiates simulcast contracts for the mid-Atlantic states, said that Churchill sent the cooperative a "last and final" offer Wednesday morning that the cooperative rejected. But he said he expected negotiations to continue throughout the week.

"This is something no one wanted," said Lieberman, who is also the general counsel for Daily Racing Form. "[Churchill] is a good company with a good product, and it's regrettable that it has come to this."

Lieberman declined to provide specifics about the rates Churchill was asking the mid-Atlantic tracks to pay, but said the rates were "substantially higher" than those paid by the tracks during the previous three-year contract.

Karl Schmitt, the president of Churchill Downs's simulcasting operations, said Wednesday that Churchill will continue to negotiate with the mid-Atlantic cooperative and "is still interested in reaching an agreement." Schmitt also said that Churchilll offered the Hollywood signal to the tracks while negotiations continued.

Lieberman confirmed that Churchill made the offer to show Hollywood through Friday's card, but he said the tracks declined. "What we didn't want to do is offer it to our fans and then on Friday say we can't show it anymore and turn it off," Lieberman said.

The mid-Atlantic cooperative was formed three years ago to negotiate simulcast contracts on behalf of the tracks. Two years ago, the cooperative was sharply criticized by racing fans when it refused to take the signal from Keeneland after that track lowered its takeout, cutting into the mid-Atlantic tracks' profit margins. After a week-long blackout, the tracks and Keeneland reached an agreement.

Bruce Garland, the vice president for racing for Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands in New Jersey, two members of the cooperative, said that one of Churchill's offers for taking the Kentucky Derby would have resulted in his tracks losing five cents on every dollar bet on the Derby.

"We like to be partners with our simulcast people, and we'd like to work something out where we could be partners again," Garland said.