by Gary Quill
In November 2013 the North East Racing & Sports Club closed, leaving just a single off-track wagering facility open in Maryland (the Riverboat, which technically is in Virginia, but… well, it’s a long story). North East was like a social club, with a variety of characters fit for a television sitcom. So in March of this year, when the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), in partnership with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association (MHBA), announced plans to open an OTB in the new Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, I was elated.
On April 28, 2015 just days prior to the Kentucky Derby, the state of the art Off-Track Betting (that’s the official name) opened for business. The facility was designed to be 100 percent automated, meaning that horseplayers would purchase racing programs, buy betting vouchers, place wagers and cash out at tellerless terminals. A pari-mutuel clerk to blame for punching the wrong ticket would be nowhere to be found.
Really?! Maybe in a perfect 21st century world that would work, but many hardcore horseplayers are “technologically challenged” and/or want that human interaction. After all, would you get the same satisfaction out of telling a machine about your bad beat or big win?
In my recent maiden journey, I was eager to see how the new OTB looked, and I hoped to see some familiar faces from North East. What I found was a small but impressive area (on the 1st floor next to the food court) dedicated to horse racing. With a couple dozen 75” flat-screen HDTVs in addition to a 25” HDTV located on each of the 33 betting carrels (aka individual desk/table), you’ll never miss a race.
“The place has potential,” according to John from Bel Air, who admittedly only goes to the track four or five times a year but wagers online at home. “I’m going to the game (at M&T Bank stadium next door) and decided to stop in a play a few races.”
Based on the number of folks who gathered around the betting area this particular day, word has spread about the OTB. “We are growing every day,” said Deborah Pro-Marshall, Director of OTB Operations as she pointed out a section cleared for 11 more betting carrels and the recently constructed wagering station, which has four (4) flip terminals. Flip terminals can be used by a patron for self-service betting or by a pari-mutuel clerk when flipped to the down position.
Early on Pro-Marshall recognized many of her customers could not adapt to the automation. Solution: She opened a betting window and punched tickets so patrons would not get shut out. The handle increased dramatically. Lesson learned, and now the OTB has a pair of parimutuel clerks tag-team during the busy hours of operation (typically noon- 11pm).
“Miss Deborah,” as she is referred to by her customers, runs a tight ship (watch your mouth… no foul language is tolerated) but has endless energy when it comes to making sure her customers are happy and, most importantly, get their bets in. “What do ya need, babe?” she asks J.R., a regular at OTB who only bets with a teller, never a machine.
“I don’t do that,” he says, pointing to the tellerless terminal.
Then there’s Manson, who fits this OTB the way Norm on “Cheers” fit on a barstool. The self-proclaimed luckiest man alive, Manson holds court and isn’t shy about pointing out his handicapping prowess. “Was that the 4-2-7 there?” Manson asks, pointing to the screen as he pauses in mid-sentence while talking about poker. “If it was, I got it… the Exacta AND Triple!”
Sure enough, Manson displays his winning tickets with a confident smile as if it’s a simple game. “I’m here to play poker… but I love horses! I play them everywhere… Laurel, Pimlico, Delaware, but I like coming here now because I can go play poker for a while then come back to (bet) the horses.”
Horseplayers are a rare breed. We’ll talk to complete strangers as if they’re old friends.
“Who do ya like here?” asks a guy sporting an American Pharoah T-shirt, as he sits down across from me at the high-top table. There are six huge, 75″ HDTVs a few lengths in front of us, showing six different tracks, but only one was close to post time. So, of course, I knew exactly what track and race he was referring to.
He’s Mark from Rosedale. “I used to go to Pimlico but I come here now because its close,” he says. “But it needs its own room.”
Based on the popularity of the OTB at the Horseshoe just three months into operation, it appears that the MJC, MTHA and MHBA partnership picked a winner. The future looks bright and expansion may continue. “I love it here,” Miss Deborah exclaims with a Cheshire cat smile.
Meanwhile, Manson roots home another winner, making sure everyone around him knows it. He then strolls over and says, “I knew that 2 would win. I’m bad!” as we fist pump. It’s all good. I have found my new social club.