Downs Cancels Live Racing

BERLIN- For the first time in 63 years, there will be no live racing this summer at Ocean Downs as track officials confirmed this week the ongoing renovation and expansion of the grandstand areas to accommodate the future slots venue at the historic track will not be completed in time to host the annual live meet.

For the last 62 years, Ocean Downs has hosted a 40-day live meet throughout much of summer, attracting thousands of harness racing enthusiasts each year. Last year, for example, the 40-date live meet averaged 1,700 fans each night, or roughly 66,000 for the entire summer.

This summer, however, the track will be decidedly quiet, except, perhaps, for the typical sounds associated with a substantial construction project. Ocean Enterprise 589 LLC chief operating officer William Fasy confirmed this week ongoing construction associated with the development of a slots venue at Ocean Downs will make a live racing meet this summer impossible.

“The ongoing improvements to the track’s grandstand areas won’t be ready, so there won’t be a live racing meet this summer,” he said. “We’re in discussions about alternative and there are some options to consider, but it’s too premature to say what will happen.”

In September, the state’s Video Lottery Location Commission voted unanimously to approve track owner William Rickman, Jr.’s application for one of the five slots licenses in Maryland with a plan for 800 machines in the short term and a potential to expand to as many as 1,500 in the future. The approval set in motion an ambitious plan to convert the existing 34,000-square-foot grandstand at the track into a gaming facility to accommodate 600 machines at first with an additional 200 added within a year of the casino’s opening.

After the lottery commission awarded Ocean Downs the first slots license in the state, the initial plan called for an opening of the new venue by Memorial Day. However, the start date was moved back indefinitely in December when a preliminary investigation of the old grandstand area revealed problems with asbestos and the structural steel of the old facility.

After those obstacles were overcome, demolition of the old grandstand began in earnest, but to date, just a shell of the former structure still stands on the site with the summer season rapidly approaching. Fasy confirmed this week the projected date for the opening the slots venue at Ocean Downs has now been moved back to next November.

Fasy also confirmed the summer-long live racing meet will also be a casualty of the construction setbacks at Ocean Downs. The track has contractual obligations with the horsemen who train and race there each summer. Last spring, after somewhat controversial negotiations, track officials reached a contract with the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, which represents the horsemen, guaranteeing live racing at Ocean Downs through 2012 at least, regardless of what happened with the slots approval.

Fasy said this week track officials are in discussions with Cloverleaf on how to resolve the live racing issue for the summer of 2010. At any rate, Fasy said the agreement with the horsemen will be honored and outlined a couple of possible alternatives.

“We are going to meet our obligation to the horsemen,” he said. “We have some alternatives, some we like better than others, that were are discussing now.”

The favored alternative for Ocean Enterprise 589, according to Fasy, is to postpone the live racing meet this summer while improvements to accommodate slots are completed, with the purses for the horsemen doubled next year when live racing resumes at the new and improved facility.

“That is just one of the options currently on the table,” he said.

Another option, and the second most favored by track officials, would suspend the summer meet at Ocean Downs until the fall when improvements at the track are completed substantially enough to host live racing. Fasy said the option is a measure of last resort of sorts because the track would not be able to thrive on its usual customer base from the resort areas each summer.

“If we did it in the fall, we wouldn’t have the crowds and the atmosphere we usually do in the summer,” he said. “It just wouldn’t be the same. I don’t thing having the meet in the fall will be a viable option.”

Fasy dismissed reports this week Rickman is in negotiations with the Rosecroft racetrack in Prince George’s County to move Ocean Downs’ summer live meet there this summer.

“Despite what you might have heard or read, there isn’t any truth to the reports that are being circulated,” he said.