Track, Horsemen Reach Accord, Save Live Meet

BERLIN – The future of live racing at Ocean Downs seems a little more secure this week as track officials and the horsemen who use the facility jointly announced late last week they have reached an agreement in principle providing for the continuation of a live meet at the Berlin track for at least the next 15 years, which would coincide with the length of a potential slots license.

For just about a month, the historic track near Ocean Pines has been largely dark as contract negotiations stalled, with the track owners accusing the horsemen of holding out for a larger share of the potential slots proceeds, and the horsemen accusing the owners of closing down training areas as part of a long-term effort to eliminate live racing. Track officials announced on December 31 they would be forced to suspend simulcast wagering at the racetrack on Route 589 in Berlin, and at the company’s off-track betting location, the Cambridge Turf Club, as of January 1, pending the resolution of a contract issue with the Ocean Downs horsemen.

The contract impasse arose when track owner William Rickman, Jr. informed the horsemen, allegedly in the 11th hour of the negotiations, the “Backstretch” area of the facility, including the sandy practice track and some of the barn areas would close at the end of August 2009. When Ocean Downs included the closure of the backstretch areas in the new contract in late December, talks broke off between the track owners and the horsemen. The Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, which represents the horsemen, then withdrew its consent for simulcasting at Ocean Downs and the offsite betting venue, the Cambridge Turf Club, also owned by Rickman.

The wedge between owners and the horsemen widened two weeks ago when track owner William Rickman, Jr. accused Cloverleaf of holding the track’s feet to his fire for a larger share of the potential slots revenue. Cloverleaf countered that the potential for slots at the Berlin track were never part of the contract discussions or the assurances live racing would continue at Ocean Downs. Late last week, however, the two parties issued a brief joint statement that an agreement had been reached in principle that will guarantee live racing continues for the next 15 years, ironically the life of a slots license for Ocean Downs should the track be the successful bidder for the Worcester Count location.

“Ocean Downs Racetrack and the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association jointly announced today they have reached an agreement in principle governing racing at Ocean Downs for a 15-year period,” the one paragraph statement reads. “Details of the agreement and specific conditions related to a potential Maryland slots license at Ocean Downs will be released next week after a contract is signed.”

As of late yesterday, a further formal statement from the parties had not been released, nor would officials from either side make additional comments. A representative from Cloverleaf said yesterday the contract had not been formalized and any further details about the agreement would likely not be made until it is signed.

Meanwhile, with an informal agreement in hand, simulcasting and training for the horsemen resumed at Ocean Downs last Saturday in the spirit of cooperation. While reluctant to address the specifics of the pending contract, Ocean Downs general manager Peter Syzmanski said yesterday it was business as usual at the facility this week.

“We’re back in business,” he said. “We’re happy and the horsemen are happy.”