10/18/2002 11:00PM

Should slots be used to save Rosecroft?

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When the horsemen's group that owns Rosecroft Raceway put the track up for sale, then voted to sell it to what is principally a casino company, the deal was a tacit admission of what everybody knows about harness racing.

The sport is virtually dead.

In Maryland, as in many states, it can only exist with the aid of artificial life support. It has to siphon money from Thoroughbred racing or casino gambling to subsidize races that few people want to watch or bet.

Business at Rosecroft has sunk to levels that once would have been unimaginable. Wagering on its live races in all of 2001 totaled a pitiful $12 million. Its only salvation has been the revenue it gets from Thoroughbred simulcasts, but Rosecroft nevertheless faced the prospect of cutting back its already meager purses and racing schedule.

So the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, which owns Rosecroft, announced that it would take bids for the track and vote on them Oct. 17. That date happened to fall just before the gubernatorial election that may determine whether Maryland will eventually permit the installation of slot machines at the state's tracks. In essence, bidders were gambling on the legalization of slots, and the price they had to pay included a guarantee of future purses at the harness track.

The three bidders were Magna Entertainment, which is about to acquire the Maryland Thoroughbred tracks; Greenwood Racing, owner of Philadelphia Park and Freehold Raceway; and Centaur Inc., which has casino gambling ventures in California and Colorado as well as a minority interest in Hoosier Park in Indiana. Outsiders didn't consider Centaur a serious contender until the CSOA board voted in its favor in the wee hours of Friday morning.

Magna had made the highest bid, and in many ways it should have been the logical choice, but it was doomed by the longtime antipathy between the Thoroughbred and harness forces in Maryland. "Our past relationship with the Maryland Jockey Club has not been good," Rosecroft president Tom Chuckas said, "and that had a negative impact on Magna's position."

The hostility between the two breeds has hurt all of Maryland racing. The state has a law authorizing off-track betting facilities that could be a bonanza for everybody, but the two breeds can't agree on the proper division of revenues. "We've been sitting on our hands for 2 1/2 years, waiting to go forward on OTB development, because of this infighting," said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

If Magna had acquired Rosecroft and controlled both industries, the infighting would have been over, and the company could have moved forward to develop OTBs. But by publicly spurning Magna, Rosecroft virtually assured ongoing friction between the two sides.

Chuckas said that the harness interests considered the Centaur operators "very straightforward and ethical." The company's president, Jeff Smith, has a racing background, and he declared, "We look forward to building business at Rosecroft and growing harness racing in Maryland."

If Centaur wins its bet on slots, Rosecroft of course will prosper. But this deal raises this question: Is it necessarily good for racing - and is it good public policy - to subsidize tracks that can't survive on their own merits?

The proliferation of slot machines hasn't been an unmitigated good for racing; in many cases, the machines have helped the weak at the expenses of the strong. Slots at minor league tracks in Louisiana have had a harmful effect on the Fair Grounds, one of the nation's better tracks. Slots rescued Delaware Park from bankruptcy, but the competition from Delaware has impacted healthy tracks throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Perhaps this is my Thoroughbred bias showing, but I believe the Maryland Thoroughbred tracks ought to get slots. Despite their recent troubles, they are still viable operations. They make a profit. They are viewed as a big-league product and fare well in the simulcast marketplace. Pimlico and the Preakness are institutions that are part of the state's identify. An infusion of slot money could make Maryland one of the country's major racing circuits again. The state's politicians and citizens of Maryland might reasonably conclude that channeling slot revenue into the Thoroughbred industry is a good investment.

Chuckas insists that the same argument applies to Standardbred racing. He believes Rosecroft can be revived if it has the same advantage of slot revenue that other tracks do. "We can compete on a level playing field," he said, "but it's inequitable now."

But in view of harness racing's generally declining popularity and Rosecroft's dismal business, it is hard to envision a significant resurgence of the sport at Rosecroft. Maryland's citizens might reasonably ask this question: Should revenue from slot machines - which could be used for many worthy purposes - go to an Indiana casino company so that Maryland's harness horsemen can keep playing a game that few people care about?

? 2002 The Washington Post