by Frank Vespe
This post was updated at 9:20 a.m. on February 23 to include information from the Maryland Jockey Club.
The Maryland Racing Commission has approved a year-round off-track wagering facility (OTB) at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, the Commission announced today.
Seven of nine Commissioners voted in favor of the facility, while two abstained.
“It was a difficult process, but I think the outcome is very good all-around,” said Commission chairman John McDaniel. “It turned out to be a win-win for the horsemen and the track and also the community.”
“We are extremely excited about this,” added Bill Marlow, a longtime board member of the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, the nonprofit which owns the Fairgrounds and operates the State Fair. Marlow did not say when the facility would open.
The application to open the facility, which would be in the second floor of the racetrack grandstand adjacent to the existing restaurant, was advanced by the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park, Pimlico, and other off-track wagering facilities in Colonial Beach and at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, and supported by the State Fair. Considered by most in racing to be a no-brainer, it aroused considerable suspicion and anger within the nearby residential communities.
More than 300 people packed a building on the Fairgrounds campus February 11, about 60 percent of them opposed to the OTB. During a contentious nearly-three hour event, opponents raised several issues, most prominently their fear that the betting parlor would lead eventually to a casino in the facility and their concern that the process towards the OTB had been unnecessarily secretive.
In response, Marlow said, the State Fair and Agricultural Society, which earlier had said it was unwilling to encumber the property with a deed restriction, delivered to the Commission a memo stating that it would not seek expanded gaming on the site in the next decade. The Maryland Jockey Club previously had told the community that it did not want and would not seek expanded gaming at the site.
But Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, an organization “with memberships of over 50 area Community Associations,” said that he was “disappointed,” though not surprised, at the Commission decision and at the limited timeframe of the Society’s pledge.
Rockel said that, although the sides met last Wednesday, February 17, at a meeting convened by county councilman Wade Kach, the lack of communication from the principals has continued.
“The State Fair really hasn’t done a very good job communicating with the public,” he said.
Yet McDaniel called the Commission’s process “unprecedented” in his 30 years on the Commission. In addition to the packed public hearing, the Commission delayed voting until after the February 17 meeting to allow the public’s concerns to be more fully aired. It also took steps to assure itself that the applicants had complied with relevant zoning and other laws, thought those are typically beyond the Commission’s scope.
“Was it in the best interests of racing?” he asked rhetorically. “In the Commission’s view, absolutely yes.”
Maryland Jockey Club president and general manager Sal Sinatra agreed.
“We are looking forward to opening our off-track betting facility in Timonium,” he said. “We also look forward to continue building a strong relationship and partnership with the local community. We believe there’s tremendous potential in Maryland Thoroughbred racing and we want to build on its rich tradition. By growing our off-track network we hope to create convenience for our customers and exposure to racing throughout the state.”
While the work may be over for the Commission, this will not be the final step in resolving the issue. Rockel said that the same groups who met on February 17 are scheduled to reconvene on March 2.
In addition, Delegate Chris West (R-42B) has introduced state legislation that would prohibit off-track wagering at the Fairgrounds. As an emergency bill, it would require a three-fifths vote to pass. Similarly, councilman Kach has introduced a zoning bill in the Baltimore County Council that would prohibit off-track betting at the Fairgrounds. The county code already forbids slot machines at the site.