Preliminary Ideas Surface For Downs’ Racing Exception

BERLIN
– In a week during what would have typically included the blustering last
minute preparations for the opening night of live racing at Ocean Downs, the
track remained eerily quiet this week as race officials continue to wrestle
with meeting their live-racing obligation for the zoning of the property.

For the
last 60-plus years, the middle of June has marked the return of live racing at
the historic track near Ocean Pines, but the former grandstand remains a shell
of its former self this week. In April, track officials confirmed the summer’s
live racing meet at Ocean Downs was in jeopardy because of the ongoing
renovations to the grandstand area to accommodate a future slots venue.

When
Ocean Downs was awarded the state’s first slots license last fall, the rather
ambitious plan to renovate the grandstand area to accommodate the gaming
machines included a projected opening date of Memorial Day. However, Memorial
Day has come and gone and the track is apparently no closer to solving its
live-racing obligation problem.

According
to long-time Ocean Downs driver William Long, whose name has been all over the
track’s record book for nearly the last two decades, ongoing renovations of the
grandstand area in preparation of the anticipated slots venue will prevent a
traditional summer live racing meet this year, but he holds out hope for a rosy
future of racing at the Berlin facility.

“It
doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year,” Long said this week. “I’ve
been racing there a long, long time, and for the first time since I can’t
remember when, we’re not gearing up for another summer season.”

In
April, it was learned a section in Worcester County’s zoning code could require
at least some sort of live racing at the facility in the next several months to
avoid losing a special exception on the property that has existed for decades.
The county has always considered slots at Ocean Downs as an accessory use to
the principle use of the property as a racetrack, which is treated as a special
exception on the agriculturally zoned property and has been for 60-plus years.
Without the special exception that allows the racetrack on the property, slots
as an accessory use to the racetrack isn’t viable.

A
condition of the special exception for the racetrack is that there is live
racing within a 12-month period. With a traditional summer-long live meet at
Ocean Downs now impossible because of the delays in the grandstand
construction, track officials are scrambling to meet the live racing
requirement even if it means a single race or day of racing meets the standard.

Long,
who serves on the board of directors for the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners
Association, which represents the horsemen at Ocean Downs, said this week track
officials are attempting to find a solution that will meet the contractual
obligations with the horsemen and satisfy the county’s zoning requirements at
the same time. At least one option has been discussed, although certainly not
formalized at this point.

“There
have been some discussions about maybe four days of racing, maybe one day a
week with a stakes race each day,” he said. “That idea is out there, but it
certainly isn’t finalized. They’re just trying to figure some way to meet their
obligations.”

In the
meantime, Long said he and other horsemen at Ocean Downs are preparing for what
will likely be a quiet summer at the historic track.

“It’s
really kind of sad there won’t be a live racing meet this summer,” he said.
“We’ve been doing it a long time out there and we’re all going to miss it – the
drivers, the trainers and all of those fans who come out on those summer
nights.”

Long
said the cancellation of the traditional live meet summer might be a price to
pay for a new and improved track down the line.

“Unfortunately,
we have to work through these obstacles, but hopefully, when we do, live racing
will be back next year better than ever,” he said.

 

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