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After three years, racing back at Rosecroft

FORT WASHINGTON — Horse racing will return to Rosecroft Raceway for the first time in three years on Friday night, but the track’s new owner says it is unlikely to survive long-term without slot machines, a tough sell in Prince George’s County.

Ten harness races will take place at the track on Friday night, the first of 20 scheduled racing dates this fall.

“Hopefully we can eventually draw back some of the horses that have left [Maryland],” said Chris McErlean, vice president of racing at Penn National Gaming Inc., the company that bought the track out of bankruptcy in February.

On Thursday, workers finished preparing the track for the return of racing. They washed windows, fixed lights and put new signs around the facility.

Dave Herbst, who is overseeing renovations at Rosecroft, said the facility has come a long way since workers began fixing it in May. Grass had grown three feet high in the infield, and large holes in the track surface had to be repaired.

“It should’ve never closed down in the first place,” said Herbst, who has worked at Rosecroft for decades.

The raceway closed completely in July 2010 after it lost its ability to simulcast races from other tracks, but Rosecroft was in financial trouble well before that.

Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc., the owner at the time, stopped live racing in 2008 in a last-ditch attempt to stay open. After Penn National Gaming purchased the track, they brought back simulcast races in August.

Although Penn National Gaming is celebrating the reintroduction of live racing, the company has repeatedly stressed that it cannot be sustained if the state does not allow slot machines at the track.

“Profitability of stand-alone racetracks is not a sure thing,” said Karen Bailey, a spokeswoman for the company.

But Penn National Gaming faces an uphill battle in getting slots to Rosecroft.

Maryland has already approved installing slot machines in five other locations in the state — the maximum number allowed by a 2008 referendum —- meaning Marylanders would have vote again to bring slots to Rosecroft.

Some Prince George’s County leaders are strongly opposed to the move. Local clergy don’t want slot machines in the county, and the Prince George’s County Council will soon consider a bill that would ban slot machines in the county.

“I don’t think slots are real economic development,” said Councilman Eric Olson, D-College Park, who proposed the bill. “They take in a lot more money than they give out, and we have record foreclosures and people in very vulnerable economic conditions.”

Despite the opposition, Bailey said pairing horse racing and slots has proved to be the most successful, sustainable business model to keep racetracks afloat. She pointed to racetracks in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that have slots as proof of that success.

She said slot machines would help the track by attracting more gamblers and providing additional revenue that would increase the purse amount for each race. That would bring better horses, in turn attracting more bettors to the track, she said.

However, other racing industry leaders said slot machines have also negatively affected the popularity of horse racing by providing a gambling alternative and taking the focus off the sport.

“You’ve got [betting on] football, baseball, poker, slot machines … the amount of entertainment that is available has expanded so much in the past 30 years,” said J. Michael Hopkins, the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.

Steuart Pittman, the president of the Maryland Horse Council, said the push for slot machines at racetracks has hurt the overall quality of horse racing in the state.

“Owners have worked so hard to lobby for slots that they didn’t focus on marketing their product,” Pittman said.

Other industry leaders questioned the degree to which slot machines help racetracks. A 2008 study conducted by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, found that proponents of slots had overstated the ability of slots to entice gamblers to bet on races.

“States that had implemented [racetracks and slots] did bring in customers to play slot machines, but typically did not do anything to bring in people to gamble on horse racing,” Neil Bergsman, head of the institute, said.

Whether slot machines make it to Rosecroft, the races return at a time when industry leaders are trying to create a long-term strategy for all of the tracks in Maryland — one that does not rely on revenue from slots.

The Maryland General Assembly created a task force representing track owners, breeders and horsemen earlier this year to produce a long-term plan for sustaining the industry that does not involve slot machines. The report is due on Dec. 1.