In its latest effort to derail the push for a Las Vegas-style casino at National Harbor, Rosecroft Raceway’s owner has promised two more years of live harness racing — but only if the state denies a casino license to any other bidder in the county.
Penn National Gaming, owner of the Fort Washington track, agreed late last week to a two-year contract extension with the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association to continue live racing at Rosecroft. The deal came just a week before a special legislative session began Thursday to consider adding a sixth casino in the state, with Rosecroft and National Harbor the likeliest sites.
The agreement calls for 54 days of live racing, contingent on having “no casino approved for a location other than Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County,” according to Penn’s statement. The track would have racing two nights per week, with a spring and fall meet. The number of racing days are consistent with Penn’s request for last year.
Rosecroft’s fall meet begins Sept. 15 and runs every Tuesday and Saturday night through Dec. 22.
“Our priority is to give Maryland horsemen the greatest opportunity possible to earn a living, grow their business and rebuild the industry. This does require a financial sacrifice from Penn National to maintain our commitment to the Maryland Standardbred industry but we are willing to take that risk,” Christopher McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn, said in the statement.
Penn purchased the track, which had been closed, for $11 million through a bankruptcy auction in February and has spent almost $2 million on various facility improvements. The company also projected $2.3 million in operating losses through 2013 when it filed for live racing days in 2011. The track reopened for live racing last fall.
“It’s not just about gambling or casinos. We’re looking at the whole picture here,” said Karen Bailey, spokeswoman for Penn. “We want to revitalize the horse industry in the state.”
The Maryland Racing Commission, which approves the live race schedules at the state’s tracks, had no comment on Penn’s agreement with Cloverleaf. Its next meeting is set for Sept. 18 at Laurel Park.
Cloverleaf has no concern about Penn’s conditions regarding a National Harbor casino, said Sharon Roberts, executive vice president of Cloverleaf.
Penn previously has said it would difficult to continue operating Rosecroft without revenues from other gambling sources, such as slots.
“Penn has been very supportive of Maryland harness racing,” Roberts said. “We think they always put their best foot forward. This is a step in the right direction.
“We are very hopeful that the future of Rosecroft Raceway and the Standardbred industry are considered when the special session convenes in Annapolis. A casino at National Harbor will be the final blow to Rosecroft and will destroy our industry,” Roberts said in a statement.
Roberts also expressed her “disappointment” with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) for being “willing to put the futures of our horsemen, the tracks employees and our breeding industry at risk just as we have begun to rebuild it.”
“We are finally seeing our industry begin to thrive again and it would be terrible for that progress to end because a casino was placed at National Harbor,” Roberts said.
A tenuous track record
Rosecroft has been narrowly averting a demise for years, and its financial straits drove its previous owner, Cloverleaf Enterprises, to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009. At the time, Rosecroft’s handle was about $69 million and it owed $6.81 million to PNC Bank, as part of an initial $7.35 million in loans.
Track owners also were feuding with Maryland breeders and horsemen over simulcast signal rights to races at other tracks because Cloverleaf refused to pay the $1.24 million it owed. The struggle continues to this day.
Rosecroft also ran into problems during its initial attempt to sell to Mark Vogel, a developer who had owned Rosecroft and Ocean Downs racetrack in the 1980s. Although Cloverleaf approved the $10.5 million sale to Vogel, the state commission and bankruptcy trustee questioned his financial fortitude, thus prompting Rosecroft to return to the auction block.
Vogel also is pressing for a slots license at his Clarion Hotel near National Harbor.
After the track closed in July 2010, the family of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos announced a $9 million bid, with a promise to pay $5 million more if slots were authorized at Rosecroft and operating by Dec. 1 of this year.
When Penn eventually defeated Angelos’ bid in early 2011, the company immediately went into pursuit of slots and table games at Rosecroft.
Penn since has faced opposition from the Prince George’s County Council, which tried to pass a bill in 2011 to ban slots from Rosecroft. More recently, the Wyomissing, Pa., company, which also owns a slots parlor in Perryville, has tried to counter Baker’s push for a National Harbor casino.
The new agreement with Rosecroft tries to be clear as to what impact a National Harbor casino would have on Rosecroft, Bailey said.
“We know our losses will need to be cut at the time,” she said. “If the state chooses to sole-source things to National Harbor, that will end the conversation.”