11/13/2003 12:00AM

Pimlico may not get slots

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Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has expressed support for a slot-machine plan that limits gambling licenses to one per company, making a concession on Wednesday that could create problems for Pimlico Race Course.

Acknowledging criticism that his original slots-at-racetracks proposal would have enriched a few wealthy track owners, the governor said he could accept a condition established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch - that one company be prevented from receiving multiple licenses.

"We are heading in that direction, where that business entity would have one license, not two," Ehrlich said at a news conference.

Ehrlich said he believes a slots resolution would include permitting the machines at "one or more" racetracks and "one or more" freestanding emporiums, another idea backed by Busch.

The governor's views are a direct hit on the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns both Pimlico and Laurel Park and has sought to contain slots to tracks. A bill passed by Maryland's Senate but killed by the House of Delegates this year would have allowed 3,500 machines at both of those tracks, plus 3,500 at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County and 1,000 at a proposed track in western Maryland.

Many industry experts believe that if forced to choose, the Maryland Jockey Club would be more likely to install machines at Laurel, which is closer to the more populous and lucrative Washington market.

MJC officials have said that promised improvements to Pimlico could be delayed without slots money.

Paul Micucci, executive vice president of gaming for Magna Entertainment Corp., the majority owner of the MJC, would not comment on which track the company would prefer. But he said limits on gaming based on ownership were inequitable.

"To unfairly penalize any facility simply because of shared ownership puts at risk the economic viability of the facility left behind," Micucci said. "Why should the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club be penalized for making a large investment, rather than a smaller investment, in an important Maryland industry?"

It remained unclear yesterday whether the governor's concession broke a logjam in Maryland's protracted debate on gambling.