- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

Mark Vogel walked through the vast emptiness of Rosecroft Raceway and pointed to a large mural of a harness racer and his horse on a wall.

“I had that done when I owned the place,” Vogel said.

They never replaced it. Someone must have known Mark Vogel would be back.

Vogel, 61, was the gregarious owner of Rosecroft the last time the Prince George’s County harness track occupied a meaningful place in racing, back in the 1980s.

“When I used to own this place, you couldn’t get in here on a Friday or Saturday night,” Vogel said, sitting at a table in the Victory View Cafe. “We did a good business. We ran 220 nights of racing.”

Now he wants to buy the place again. He has a sale agreement with the bankrupt owners of the track that is awaiting approval from a judge. If approved by the Maryland Racing Commission, Vogel hopes to take over in September and have live racing at least two nights a week, a new restaurant and revived simulcast thoroughbred betting by January.

“This is a huge task for me,” he said. “I need people to believe in me.”

There is no live racing now at Rosecroft - a ghost town these days.

There is barely any simulcast racing - thoroughbred simulcast racing was shut off by the racing commission in a dispute over a nearly $6 million rights payment due the Maryland Jockey Club, the subsidiary of Magna Entertainment, which owns Laurel and Pimlico racetracks.

Vogel owned Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs, another harness track, at a heady time for racing in Maryland.

Vogel and the powerful Frank De Francis, who owned Laurel and Pimlico, were the dominant figures of racing in the state - quotable, colorful personalities and exactly the type of owners you want for a unique property like a racetrack.

Vogel had become a particularly high-profile figure, attempting to buy the Orioles in 1988 and developing a reputation as the Donald Trump of Prince George’s County.

But De Francis passed away suddenly in 1989 at the age of 62. Two years later, Vogel found himself in what must have seemed like a slow death, facing bankruptcy, cocaine possession charges and a federal investigation into supposed improprieties involving millions of dollars in loans. Vogel had gotten the attention of the feds, who clearly had targeted the developer. No charges were filed in the financial probe.

Vogel stayed out of trouble and out of the limelight after that, building back up his development company.

But he has resurfaced now with a plan to return to Rosecroft, which fell on hard times and went through several failed sale attempts in the past 10 years to suitors ranging from Orioles owner Peter Angelos to the conglomerate Penn National Gaming.

Vogel is bitter about the whole swirl surrounding his life nearly 20 years ago. He thinks he was dealt a bad hand.

“I am bitter about that time,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it. I did nothing wrong.”

He wants back in the game now with a new hand - legalized card playing. Vogel sees the future of Rosecroft not as a slots palace, as once envisioned, but rather as one of the premier destination spots in the Mid-Atlantic for poker, pai gow and perhaps other gambling card games, including blackjack.

Legalized card playing is quite a leap for a state that managed to bungle legalized slots so poorly that it is years behind Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia and likely will have to revisit and amend the slots law again to make it viable.

But Vogel believes the legalization of other forms of gambling is inevitable and the prospect of creating jobs in an economy starved for employment will be too great for politicians to ignore.

“If there was a card bill passed, we are talking about 400 to 600 jobs - good jobs, union jobs,” Vogel said. “These will be jobs for Prince George’s County residents. The county politicians need to get behind this and lobby for it.”

Maryland indeed would be wise to get in front of a gambling revenue producer for a change. Delaware, West Virginia and, most recently, Pennsylvania all have added slot machine casinos, bringing millions of dollars into state coffers and creating jobs.

West Virginia, in response to Pennsylvania’s approval of slots, upped the ante with the approval of table games in some counties. Delaware responded by approving legalized sports betting (it was one of four states not covered by the 1992 federal ban against such betting) to begin this fall, and New Jersey is now looking to go to court to overturn the federal ban.

Politicians love legalized gambling because, unlike with taxes, the government doesn’t have to force citizens to hand over their money. And Maryland is facing a financial crisis that cries out for new revenue and new jobs.

An amended simulcast agreement that is conducive to Rosecroft also will have to be worked out - all of which leaves Vogel with significant obstacles to overcome before he can exorcise the ghosts at Rosecroft and replace them with real live bettors. A man like this - one who spent two years in the Peace Corps in Africa building dams in the early 1970s - likes the challenge.

“This is one I can win,” said Vogel, who said Rosecroft is much more than just another piece of real estate to him. “I am at a part of my life now where I can’t go on any wild goose chases. I wouldn’t be doing this if I could not get people behind it.”

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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