The Maryland Jockey Club would like to make betting the ponies a little easier for horse racing fans, but in the thoroughbred racing business, nothing comes easy these days.
The MJC has plans for an off-track betting facility at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, but the idea is getting pushback from residents in that part of Baltimore County as well as from the elected officials who represent the area where the fairgrounds is located. The fairgrounds is situated on York Road north of Timonium Road.
The MJC, which operates Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness Stakes, made application for what is formally known as a satellite simulcast betting facility to the Maryland Racing Commission late last year. And if things had gone as planned, the OTB parlor would have already been up and running.
However, after learning of the MJC's plans -- in some cases second-hand from constituents -- state and county elected officials took exception to what they felt was an attempt to ramrod the proposal through the approval process without giving local folks a say in the matter. The state racing commission is the agency that has the authority to approve the OTB parlor.
"It felt like they were trying to get this thing in through the backdoor," said Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican who represents the county's Third District that includes the fairgrounds.
Kach said he first heard about the plans for the OTB parlor in January from a constituent who had heard it in a restaurant. Soon after, Kach received a letter formally alerting him to plans for the OTB parlor.
"Clearly, they were trying to get this off the ground before anyone noticed," Kach said.
Meanwhile, fairgrounds officials are trying to calm upset neighbors by assuring them that an OTB parlor would cause no disruptions.
"I didn't expect the community to react the way it did," fairgrounds general manager Andrew Cashman said. "We do want to work with them. … We want this to work for everyone. The fairgrounds could certainly use the revenue, and it would help the state's racing industry."
In part, Kach's concerns revolve around increased traffic along what are already busy stretches of highway, including York and Timonium roads.
In an open letter to constituents in which Kach urged residents to voice their objections about the OTB parlor to the racing commission, Gov. Larry Hogan's office and other state officials, Kach pressed his concerns, saying the family atmosphere at the fairgrounds -- where public events run the gamut from antique shows to model train exhibits to gun shows -- would be compromised by the daily sale of alcohol.
MJC representatives could not be reached for comment, but fairgrounds general manager Cashman said OTB planners would reach out to the community to make sure their concerns are addressed.
"All along, we were zoned for [off-track wagering], and we were licensed for it, so it was something we just thought we could go ahead and do," he said.
Horse racing and wagering already take place at the fairgrounds throughout a 10-day session during the Maryland State Fair.
Cashman said the reality of an OTB parlor is that it would attract about 30-50 customers a day and perhaps twice that number on popular racing days (although, reportedly, the facility would accommodate a few hundred people), and that patrons are typically older and would simply park their cars and stay for a few hours.
The betting facility would be located in a second-floor lounge-restaurant area of the grandstand. The MJC has already outfitted the room with scores of new televisions, Cashman said.
"I think neighbors are worried that there would be slot machines in there and that this would look like a full-fledged casino, but that's not the case," Cashman said.
Nevertheless, the plan has also gotten the attention of Baltimore County elected state officials, and one, State Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat representing the 42nd District, approached State Attorney General Brian Frosh's office to inquire whether the OTB parlor could be construed as gambling expansion, according to a published report in the Baltimore Business Journal. If it did, that would require approval in a referendum.
Frosh's office said the OTB parlor does not represent gambling expansion and would not require a referendum, according to the news report.
In the absence of the enormous snowstorm that hammered the region in late January and the outcry from local politicians, a racing commission meeting would have already been held to consider the OTB parlor application. Instead, a public meeting at the fairgrounds was held Feb. 11, when the nine-member state racing commission discussed the application.
Kach wants the approval process to slow down, and at a Baltimore County Council meeting Feb. 1, he introduced legislation that would outright prohibit the OTB facility at the fairgrounds retroactive to Jan. 1. Kach's legislation could be voted on by the county council
So if the OTB does get approval from the racing commission before then and begins operations -- and that's certainly possible -- it will be interesting to see whether county council action could shut it down. Of course, there could be a resolution of the issue before it gets to that boiling point.
MJC officials have said the OTB facility would operate noon-7:30 p.m., Monday through Wednesday, and noon-11 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, according a report in The Baltimore Sun. The simulcast wagering would be year-round.
The fairgrounds' Cashman said a Timonium OTB parlor is expected to lure Maryland horseplayers who currently patronize a simulcast wagering facility in York, Pa.
The Maryland Jockey Club has simulcast operations at Laurel, Pimlico and at the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore near M&T Bank Stadium. The state also has oversight for an OTB facility at Colonial Beach, Va.
Laurel Park will hold the MJC's Champions Tournament March 12. The handicapping contest will offer more than $30,000 in prize money and a choice of berths to larger tournaments -- the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge at Santa Anita Park in California and a contest known as The Big One that's held at Laurel.
The Champions Tournament is a single-day competition and will take place in the track's Carriage Room. The first 300 entries get into the action, and there's a maximum of two entries per contestant. The entry fee is $100 (non-refundable), and entrants must stake a $200 account bankroll to win, place and show wagers on races at designated tracks. Entrants must place a minimum of 10 wagers with $20 minimums. The designated tracks are Laurel, Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Santa Anita and Aqueduct.
For more information, go to laurelpark.com/handicapping/champions-tournament.