ANNAPOLIS – When the General Assembly added another horse racing license in 1999 for a track in Allegany County, the goal was economic development for one of the state’s rural regions.
The license was awarded to businessman William Rickman Jr. who purchased the property in February 2000. With only 21 days of live racing, Rickman planned a network of off-track betting parlors to augment the track revenues.
But what was billed as a $20 million to $35 million private investment in the state’s third-poorest county has become a shrewd business move that the owner says will only remain viable if slot machines are allowed.
Supporters see the track as an economic boom for a county with a 14.8 percent poverty rate and a median household income of $30,078, according to 2000 Census data, and emphasize that Rickman’s commitment is entirely private.
In the last two years, Rickman has openly told reporters and lawmakers alike the legalization of slot machines is now an integral part of his plans for the track in Allegany County near Little Orleans, just across the Potomac River from West Virginia.
“If slots come to Rocky Gap (resort in Cumberland) and the track doesn’t get slots, then I’ll have to abandon the project,” Rickman said. “Racing can’t compete with gambling.”
Financial reports from the existing racetracks provide ample reason for such a statement.
Pimlico in Baltimore reported a net income of only $1.5 million in 2002 – down from $3.8 million in 2001 – according to audit reports filed with the Maryland Racing Commission. Laurel Park posted a net loss of $1.8 million in 2002 and $2.3 million the year before.
Maryland Jockey Club Executive Vice President Tim Capps predicted another seven-digit loss in 2003 for the club’s three facilities at Pimlico, Laurel and a training track in Bowie, due in part to harsh winter weather.
But the problem is much bigger than meteorological unpredictability.
Racetrack owners and industry lobbyists have characterized expanded gambling as the life support of horse racing, and the only way to keep the sport viable.
“The gambling business is what drives us,” Capps said. “And we don’t always get people to recognize the role of gambling in the industry.”
Rickman’s Allegany track is licensed for 21 days of live racing per year – 14 days of thoroughbred and 7 days of harness – while Ocean Downs had 40 days of live harness racing in 2003. Compared to Laurel Park’s 144 days of live racing and Pimlico’s 74 days in 2002, Allegany’s meager schedule could never support a track of its size. Like its counterparts around the country, simulcast races from other tracks or slots would make up the difference.
The planned track property is 142 acres of rolling farmland dotted with groves of evergreens and divided by a rutted farm road that provides the only access to the property. When development is complete it would contain the racecourse, seven barns, a 700-seat clubhouse and parking for 700 cars.
Rickman, along with a handful of other family members, already owns the Ocean Downs harness track in Berlin. That establishment posted a $22,058 loss in 2002, according to audit reports, and the family contributed $500,000 toward capital improvements.
Rickman would like to see slots there, too, and the location was briefly floated during Senate debate, but was deleted after fierce objections from the governor.
The Allegany track is no shoe-in for slots, either, with the delegate for the area asking for so-called “local courtesy” to keep the district slots-free.
The fate of the bill – which the Senate amended to effectively guarantee Rickman’s track one of the six licenses totaling 15,500 slot machines – lies with the House Ways and Means Committee, which is locked in a slots-or-taxes impasse with the governor and Senate.
Ehrlich has proposed slots as a solution to the state’s budget woes, and as a viable source for education funding. The House prefers taxes.
Former House Speaker Casper Taylor represented the legislative district that includes Little Orleans, and was largely responsible for the additional racing license that made Rickman’s project possible.
“It’s all private investment,” Taylor said. “(Rickman) can do with his money what he damn well pleases.”
Taylor said the track would force the development of water and sewage facilities and attract more tourism to the western part of the state, already popular for its outdoor adventure attractions.
“It will provide a good tax base for the county and the state,” Taylor said. “(The additional infrastructure) will lead to additional private development and increased property values. This would create about 550 jobs – that’s an enormous amount for such a small county.”
Delegate LeRoy Myers, R-Allegany – who defeated Taylor in a contentious election in 2002 – said the economic impact on the county would be minimal. Voters, he said, gave him a mandate to keep the racetrack and slots out of his district.
In Myers’ opinion: “It just doesn’t make sense to build a multi-million track in Allegany County for 21 days of racing.”