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Harness racing workers fight eviction from Rosecroft Raceway

Thursday, May 20, 2010  By: Washington Post

Just as he has done most days since 1957 at Rosecroft Raceway, Florzell "Georgie Boy" Daniels, 80, got up at 4 on a recent morning to sweep up, feed horses, hose down equipment and joke with trainers and owners as buzzing flies landed intermittently on his denim overalls.

"I'd go crazy if I couldn't work," said Daniels, who has a house in Delaware but sleeps most nights in a 10-by-12-foot room in the Fort Washington track's dormitory to be close to the job.


A fixture at Rosecroft, once a thriving center of harness racing that has fallen into bankruptcy, Daniels is one of about 20 horsemen who not only work but also live on a section of the track known as "the backstretch," and who are fighting in court to fend off eviction.


The case had been scheduled to be heard by a Prince George's County Court judge Friday, but the track owner has since had the case moved to federal bankruptcy court. In a response motion yet to be ruled on, the horsemen's attorney opposes the switch, arguing that Circuit Court is the traditional place for eviction cases. The two sides are in a tug of war over which venue should be used for the case.


The track's struggles typify the state of the beleaguered horse-racing industry, a onetime behemoth of American sports that was faltering even before the economic downturn exacerbated its problems. The denizens of Rosecroft -- who range in age from Daniels to the 12-year-old granddaughter of a track employee -- stand to be the next victims of the decline.


Nelson Cohen, an attorney for the track's owner, Cloverleaf Enterprises, said the decision to close the backstretch was "really simple."


"It was a business decision designed to save $35,000 a month" from costs that include insurance, maintenance and employee and equipment expenses, Cohen said. He also said the property is not zoned for the trailer park now there.


"The residents were notified almost a year ago of the intent to close the backstretch and to seek alternative arrangements," Cohen said. "A substantial portion did; others have not."


Some residents said they'd be forced to move out of state to find another training ground if the backstretch is shut down; others questioned whether they could even survive the financial strain of a relocation.


"I'm going to have to find another place to live," said Frank Contrada, 55, a horse trainer who bunks in the dormitory. "It's going to be really hard."


Cloverleaf's president, Kelley Rogers, said their decision to stay is selfish.


"It's just the brazen selfishness of that group there," Rogers said. "They're all friends of ours. . . . But the backstretch is going to close."


Rosecroft's grounds, once the site of packed stands, hundreds of horses and close to 100 race days a year, are now, by comparison, a ghost town. Dilapidated barns, the rectangular footprints of departed trailers and rows of empty horse stalls now define the backstretch, which, residents say, used to have hundreds of inhabitants. Manure dots the area in front of a once illustrious winner's circle; the grandstands are empty.


The track has not had live racing since 2008. Gamblers can bet on the harness races they see on TV screens, but the track has lost the right to simulcast thoroughbred events, such as last week's Preakness.


Aside from the mostly empty dormitory -- which resembles a rundown military barracks, with rooms just large enough for a single bed, a TV stand and a few hanging clothes -- an ever-dwindling number of residents hang their hats in a trailer park. The half-deserted lot has a mix of crumbling, abandoned, trash-strewn homes and newer-looking ones such as Betsy Brown's. She has lived there 20 years and shares the musky abode with two dogs, a blind cat and photos of winning races from the track's heyday.


"Harness racing is my life," Brown said. "It's like a family back here. Everybody kind of looks out for each other."


Cloverleaf has been struggling to unload the five-eighths-mile-long stone dust race track and its surroundings to the track's former owner, developer Mark Vogel, but the deal has faced several hurdles. The sale was denied in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last month. Rosecroft was also rebuffed by the Maryland General Assembly this year when a bid to bring card games to the raceway was killed. It should eventually receive a portion of slots revenue from elsewhere in the state, but won't have the machines on site.


Vogel said that he still intends to finalize the purchase, which would require reconsideration by the court, and that he wants live racing to return. However, in light of all the obstacles, he said, "I'm not sure I have a strategy right now. . . . We don't have live racing, we don't have simulcast [of thoroughbreds], we don't have cards and we have 200 employees there . . . I don't sleep well at night because we lose so much."


Many residents have taken the hint and moved on voluntarily, although signs of their recent presence -- such as a fully blossomed rose garden surrounding a vacant trailer bed -- linger. Others, such as Robert "Shag" Fox, 65, a track resident of 27 years, said he plans to stay.


"I told them," Fox said, gold-capped teeth glistening, "I'm not going anywhere 'til the fat momma sing."

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