12/30/2003 12:00AM

States control racing's fate

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Horse racing is discovering, once again and painfully, that the state giveth and the state taketh away.

Track management may make decisions, horsemen may make the racing, commissions may make the rules, but it is politicians who make or break the game.

This is hardly news, but it became agonizingly apparent in recent weeks and months in the major racing states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

In Maryland and Pennsylvania, it has been a battle between the executive branch and the legislature, with racing as a pawn.

In Ohio, it has been an internal dispute between legislators over where the proceeds from racinos would go.

In Maryland, one powerful man - the speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael Busch - has been able to bring a historic racing industry to despair, and perhaps to the brink of destruction. He was able to stalemate Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's plan for slots at Maryland tracks last spring, and last week he made clear his contempt for racing in his state. He told The Washington Post that no one really cared about racing in Maryland, and that he wasn't sure it deserved to be saved.

"If the Preakness wasn't here, would anybody care?" he asked. Then he answered, "I think the amount of people who care is next to none. The age of the player who bets on horse racing is deceased."

Those thousands still alive in Maryland who care passionately about horse racing should open their computers or take their pens and answer Busch, in print and every other way, but racing fans and participants historically have been silent sufferers.

If Busch's battle with Ehrlich continues in the new legislative session, which starts Jan. 14, as seems certain, and if Busch wins a compromise to put slots in Baltimore's Inner Harbor or at other non-racing locations in the state, the Maryland Jockey Club's Pimlico and Laurel and harness racing's Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs are in trouble.

Obviously a lot of people think the tracks will get slots. Ten of them with wealth and clout just finished battling to buy Rosecroft from the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, the horsemen's group that owns the track, and although several bidders said they wanted it with or without slots, few took them seriously.

The bidders for Rosecroft included big gaming companies and heavy hitters in Maryland, and an earlier deal that fell through with Centaur of Indiana carried a price tag of $50 million. Cloverleaf's directors, however, chose one of their own in the raffle.

They picked track veterinarian Dr. Mark Recigliano, who has practiced at Rosecroft for 18 years and is a member of the Cloverleaf board, although he recused himself from the selection process.

Recigliano knows far more than the front and back end of a horse. He also owns a Maryland telecommunications company called LightWave Communications, so he is no stranger to business. As part of his deal he will have to take on a minority partner who will wind up with 20 or 30 percent of the track, and the Pembroke Group, a prominent African-American investment firm in Washington, has been engaged to help make that choice.

Tom Chuckas Jr., Rosecroft's chief executive, called Recigliano a wise choice "for both the short and long term," and he may be right, particularly if Michael Busch gets his way. As a Cloverleaf director, Recigliano could guide the track as a slotless operation, if necessary, with major input from and real concern for the interests of its 1,100 or so horsemen members.

What happens if Pimlico and Laurel are Buschwhacked seems obvious, and chief operating officer Lou Raffetto already has announced purse cuts, made "in the most benign way possible." He says the future depends "on what happens next," which means Michael Busch.

In Pennsylvania, a budget agreement between Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature, reached after nine months of haggling, contained no accord on slots. Four existing tracks - Penn National, Philadel-phia Park, Pocono Downs, and the Meadows - and others still in utero await their fate.

In Ohio it appears nothing will be decided before next November's election, and then by voters rather than the Legislature. Whatever voters decide, it still will be legislators who implement their wishes.

On this New Year's Day, it is state legislators who will make it a happy one - or a sad one - for horsemen.