06/15/2004 12:00AM

Sale could tip balance on slots

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Steven Crist wrote recently about the "butterfly effect," in which seemingly tiny things can cause enormous ones to happen. He explained that the theory says the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can set off a chain of events culminating in a tornado in Texas.

Last week the butterfly flapped its wings in Maryland.

Thoroughbred followers may not have paid much attention to the fact that the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association board voted 15-1 to sell Rosecroft Raceway to the family of Peter Angelos, the majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, but they should have. The sale of Rosecroft to the Angelos family can have a direct impact on what happens to Pimlico and Laurel, and to other Thoroughbred tracks in the mid-Atlantic region.

Rosecroft is a pretty little harness track in Oxon Hill, just off the beltway that circles our nation's capital. It was started by an old-time harness horseman named William E. Miller back in May 1949, on property he owned, and subsequently his son John and grandson Bill operated the track. It has undergone numerous ownership changes since Bill Miller sold it, the most significant returning it to horsemen ownership and making it the only major track in America owned by a horsemen's association.

The "butterfly effect" is a key component of chaos theory, which applies in Maryland, where chaos has reigned in racing for the last year or more. An ambitious speaker of the House named Michael Busch has held the governor, Robert Ehrlich Jr., at bay over slots in the state.

During this chaotic period, Cloverleaf was close to selling Rosecroft to a group called Centaur out of Indiana, which was depending on financing from Delaware North in Buffalo. Centaur grew disenchanted with Delaware North and canceled the financing deal, then was unable to come up with the money to buy Rosecroft. So the horsemen who own the track sold it again, this time to a Rosecroft veterinarian and entrepreneur named Dr. Mark Ricigliano. Or at least they thought they did, only to discover that Ricigliano had a 90 percent partner in Greenwood Racing, which owns Philadelphia Park. That disconcerted the Cloverleaf horsemen as well as the Maryland Racing Commission, which vetoed the idea as not being in the best interests of Maryland racing.

Along the way a number of other suitors appeared, including Peter Angelos. He was passed over at first but, last week, faced with a do-or-die situation for a track that had survived for 55 years, the horsemen decided they had erred. They voted to sell to the Angelos family for $13 million with the stipulation that Rosecroft will remain a harness track for at least a decade. The family is buying the track, rather than Peter Angelos himself, because Major League Baseball is squeamish about racing. Angelos's wife, Georgia, and two of his sons, Louis and John, will be the owners of record, with Angelos serving as counsel.

They are buying the track in large measure because the issue of slots still is kicking around in the Maryland legislature, and Peter Angelos is a very formidable figure in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore but also in the state capital, Annapolis.

If anyone can break the logjam on slots there, Peter Angelos can. If he does, Rosecroft is likely to get slots, and so is either Pimlico or Laurel, or both.

A spokesman for the Angelos family says that if slots come, the family will pour money into making Rosecroft a major entertainment complex, with renovations, fine food restaurants, a concert hall, and other accoutrements. Even without slots, they have guaranteed to raise purses and improve what already is an attractive racing venue.

The president of the Maryland Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller, thinks Peter Angelos may be heaven-sent. He would not speculate on how Angelos might affect slots legislation, but he did say that the Orioles owner's ties to prominent Democrats nationally and to Maryland's Republican governor "make him a wonderful asset to the Washington community."

Tom Winebrener, president of the Cloverleaf horsemen's association, was more direct. After the vote to sell, he said, "Mr. Angelos - the Angelos group - could have enough influence over the Annapolis scene next year to power-broker a license for Rosecroft. We know that without gaming there is no significant future for harness racing in Maryland." He could have said for Thoroughbred racing as well.

The butterfly has flapped its wings. The rush of air may not create a tornado, but it will be felt far beyond Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill.