County Fair Atmosphere Expected At Downs

BERLIN – After months of darkness and eerie silence, historic Ocean Downs will spring back to life tomorrow afternoon with the first of four live racing Saturdays as construction of the state’s first slots venue continues nearby.

Months after track officials canceled live racing for the first time in 60 years, as many as 14 races will be held at the historic track tomorrow afternoon for the first time this summer and will continue on each Saturday throughout August.

This spring, track officials were forced to cancel the traditional summer live-racing meet when the ongoing renovation and construction of the new grandstand to accommodate the future slots venue hit a couple of roadblocks.

However, track officials in June reached an agreement with the Maryland Standardbred Race Fund to host live racing on four consecutive Saturdays in August to accommodate the association’s commitments to the horsemen.

Tomorrow, Ocean Downs will host the preliminaries of the association’s standardbred fund races with the finals set for next Saturday, Aug. 14. On Aug. 21, the historic track will host the preliminaries of the association’s Maryland Sire Stakes, with the finals set for Aug. 28.

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 all summer, 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 at the stakes races at Ocean Downs on Saturday.

“Obviously, the grandstand is not available,” he said. “We’re expecting it to be more like a county fair atmosphere with people pulling their cars in and tailgating. That’s the way the sport started.”

While the atmosphere at Ocean Downs this Saturday and throughout August will be decidedly informal, there will be nothing lacking in terms of the purses at stake. Szymanski said this week the total purse for the estimated 14 races on Saturday is expected to come in at around $120,000 with the total soaring to about $550,000 for the remaining dates in August. Tomorrow’s races will be open to all two- and three-year-old pacers and trotters.

“This has turned out to be a win-win for everybody despite a difficult situation,” he said. “The horsemen are happy because they get a chance to race with some serious purses on the line. Obviously, there is still a lot of interest in racing at Ocean Downs.”

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 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 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 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 beneficial situation for just about everybody.