Downs To Host Limited Racing Meet In August

BERLIN – There will be
action at Ocean Downs this summer after all after track officials have come up
with a plan to provide the state’s harness racing industry with an outlet for
its summer season while meeting its live-racing obligation for the zoning of
the property.

Ocean Downs officials
this week announced there would be live racing on Saturday afternoons in August
at the historic track near Berlin, albeit not necessarily in a form enthusiasts
have grown accustomed to in the last 60 years plus.

Track officials have
reached an agreement with the Maryland Standardbred Race Fund to host as many
as eight to 12 races on each Saturday afternoon in August.

Ocean Downs will host
the association’s standardbred fund races on Aug. 7-14 and the Maryland Sire
Stakes preliminary and final races on Aug. 21-28. The races will be open to
two- and three-year-old fillies and colts, and the card could feature as many
as 12 races each day depending on the number of entries.

While the action on the
track will not be much different than the races held at Ocean Downs for the
last six decades or so, the vantage points for the spectators certainly will.
Ongoing renovations to the facility to accommodate a future slots venue has
left the historic grandstand a shell of its former self, forcing track
officials to come up with a makeshift plan for the live racing dates in August.

According to Ocean Downs
General Manager Pete Szymanski, the spectator areas will include the clubhouse
and an apron area outside the clubhouse, but the vast grandstand area will not
be open to the public. In addition, while there will be simulcasting in the
clubhouse for races at other tracks around the country, there will be no official
betting on the stakes races at Ocean Downs.

“Obviously, the
grandstand will not be available,” he said. “The clubhouse will be open and
amenities such as food and drinks will come out of there. Unfortunately, we
won’t be set up for betting at the live races in August. We’re trying to make
the best of a difficult situation.”

That “difficult
situation” started to unveil itself last fall, shortly after Ocean Downs was
awarded the first slots license in Maryland. 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 34,000-square-foot grandstand into a gaming facility to accommodate 600
machines at first with an additional 200 added within a year of the casino’s

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 this 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, the demolition of the grandstand began in earnest, leaving just
a mere skeleton of the facility in place, and it became apparent there would be
no live racing meet in the traditional sense this summer after a 63-year-run.
However, in April it was learned a section in Worcester County’s zoning code
requires at least some sort of live racing at the facility to avoid losing the
special exception that will allow slots on the agriculturally-zoned property.

Several options were
floated including moving Ocean Downs’ summer live racing meet to Rosecroft in
Prince George’s County, but that did not solve the track’s tricky zoning
dilemma. That window closed this week when it was announced Rosecroft was
officially closing as of July 1. Instead, Maryland Standardbred Association
officials approached Ocean Downs about hosting a limited live racing meet at
the historic track in what turns out to be a win-win situation for just about

“They obviously had a
problem because they suddenly didn’t have a place to race this summer, so they
came to us and asked us if we could host a limited meet for their stakes
races,” Szymanski, said. “This also solves our dilemma with the live racing
requirement in the county’s zoning code. This turned out to be a good fit for
them and a good fit for us.”

The arrangement could
also be a good fit for the area’s horsemen, drivers and trainers, who were
otherwise on the outside looking in with no live racing scheduled at Ocean
Downs and Rosecroft on the verge of collapse.

“The horsemen are pretty
happy to have a place to race this summer, even if it is on a limited basis,”
said Szymanski. “Although there are a lot of variables, we anticipate some
pretty nice purses for these stakes races in August, especially in the finals.
We could purses as high as $20,000 to $40,000 for some of the final races.”