OCEAN CITY – This weekend will conclude the 59th year of horse racing at Ocean Downs, culminating another season of live sports entertainment in our resort area. Although the live racing is a favorite at Ocean Downs, there is a wide variety of entertainment provided throughout the year. (ITALICS)The Dispatch sat down with General Manager Peter Syzmanski to discuss the ins and outs of Ocean Downs and what it takes to keep Ocean Downs the top racetrack on the shore.
Syzmanski has been the General Manager at Ocean Downs since April 2004, when he made the move to the area from Pompano Beach, Fla. where he was the General Manager at the Pompano Park Race Track.
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Syzmanski couldn’t be happier with the resort town that he now calls home.
“I love this area, it’s a wonderful place to live,” he said.
The horseracing bug first bit Syzmanski in his junior year of high school, when he won $50 on his first horseracing bet. Although he had no idea he would be making a career out of the sport, he knew he had found a passion and a hobby.
Syzmanksi’s hobby became a career in 1980, when he took a job as a part-time announcer. From there, he climbed the ladder, moving from part-time announcer to full-time announcer to assistant race secretary to race secretary to assistant general manager and finally to general manager.
“I’ve been around the block. It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been a great ride,” he said.
As the general manager of Ocean Downs, Syzmanski is responsible for an array of responsibilities.
“I’m a hands-on type person,” Syzmanski said of his managing style, comparing his job to that of a conductor of a symphony.
Syzmanski pointed out that he dislikes micromanaging his employees, adding that he fully trusts them to do their jobs well and efficiently.
Efficiency is key in running the popular horse track, one of the only professional sports venues in the area.
“There are two options of professional sports in the area,” Syzmanski said, referring to the live racing at Ocean Downs and the Shorebirds Stadium.
Syzmanski described the live racing as a great nighttime activity that the whole family could enjoy, noting that it provides entertainment for parents and children as well. Parents can enjoy the races while kids enjoy the game room, children’s horse games, and the opportunity provided for kids to pet the horses.
“Kids love to pet the horses,” Syzmanski said, “They have a special affinity for them.”
The live racing is offered 40 nights of the summer season, running form June 16 to Aug. 25 this year. Racing is offered each week on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
Although this weekend will mark the end of the 2007 live racing season at Ocean Downs, it will not mark the end of entertainment and events.
The fall offers big events at Ocean Downs, such as bike week and car shows. Simulcasting is also provided throughout the entirety of the year, bringing racing and sports from outside of the area to Ocean Downs. The off-season also provides Syzmanski and the rest of the staff time to settle into budgetary mode for the next year.
Charities are also a focus at Ocean Downs as the track is involved with youth programs and the cancer societies.
“We try to be a good neighbor within the community,” Syzmanski said.
Although Ocean Downs is on the verge of wrapping up another successful season of live racing, the racetrack is facing the challenges that have arisen with time.
“At one time, prior to Delaware getting slots, Ocean Downs was the gem of the three racetracks on the Eastern Shore,” Syzmanski said, referring to Dover Downs, and Harrington Raceway as the others.
Syzmanski noted that before the draw of slots, Ocean Downs was the premier spot for racing on the shore.
“The horses seem to race better here, somehow they thrive in this environment,” he said.
According to Syzmanksi, the development of slots at the Delaware tracks has proved to put Ocean Downs at a disadvantage, providing an additional entertainment to horse racing that Ocean Downs cannot provide. When asked about the contentious issue of slots in Maryland, Syzmanski said that he could not comment.
Despite the lure of slots, live racing remains popular at Ocean Downs, drawing an average of 2,000 people per night this season.
“People enjoy the personal attention and the courteous staff here,” Syzmanski said.
Another promising aspect is the free parking and free admission. People also have the option of grabbing a quick bite to eat at concession stands or having a nice sit down dinner at Pacers Restaurant, which Syzmanski noted as having a great crab cake recipe. He also added that people enjoy the half-mile racetrack and how close they are to the track and to the action.
People often ask Syzmanksi for advice on how to bet and what system to use in picking the winning horse.
“I tell people to enjoy themselves and bet with their head, use your own system and go with it,” he said, adding that he advises people to use whatever quirky system works for them.
With the 59th season coming to an end, Syzmanski touched upon how the game and the track have changed. The track has undergone a facelift of sorts since owner Bill Rickman Jr. took over in 2000.
“He’s a true businessmen,” Syzmanski said of Rickman. “He’s not afraid to put money up to make money.”
Since taking over in 2000, Rickman has made improvements to areas such as the drain fields, watering system and clubhouse, as well as creating an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge.
“It’s the finest in the U.S., it’s absolutely spectacular,” Syzmanski said of the Cambridge Turf Club.
Over his time spent in the racing industry, Syzmanski has noticed a change in the game, remembering that there was a time when racing and bingo were the only legal gambling outlets. Now they are faced with the competition of slots, Keno, lottery tickets, and much more.
“The hardest part is staying the right course,” he said of the challenges of the business, adding that reaching the younger generation is the biggest challenge.
Despite the daily obstacles, Syzmanski enjoys his life at Ocean Downs.
“Everyday is a different day, there’s no monotony to this job,” he said.
With the live racing season making its final run this Saturday, fireworks will be seen lighting up the sky, marking not only the end of the summer season at Ocean Downs, but also the beginning of the fall season and all the events that accompany it. Attendees on the final night could also walk away with a souvenir umbrella.