BERLIN — Live harness racing returned this week to Ocean Downs, opening the 65th season at the historic track in Berlin not far from Ocean City.
The Casino at Ocean Downs is now one of four operating casinos in Maryland, but for much of its history, the track’s main feature was the live harness racing it offered each summer. The facility, which first opened in 1949, was one of the four locations in the state authorized for live harness racing, which saw its popularity soar around the country in the 1940s, and has been offering live racing in one form or another for the last 65 years.
The Casino at Ocean Downs’ live racing meet opened last night and will continue through mid-September. Live racing will be held tonight, Friday, June 13 and again next Thursday and Friday, June 19-20. After that, Ocean Downs will host live harness racing every Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday through the end of August with the exception of Friday, July 4. There are also six live racing dates planned for September.
For over six decades, local residents and visitors to the resort areas have enjoyed warm summer nights at the historic track along Route 589 just south of Ocean Pines with gambling, food and drink, live music and family fun. For 65 years, Ocean Downs has been a fixture on Maryland’s summer live racing landscape, and despite multiple ownership changes, some tough times and good times and ultimately the addition of the Casino at Ocean Downs just four years ago, the experience has remained fairly constant.
In the 1940s, harness racing saw a surge in popularity around the U.S., driven largely by the addition of parimutuel betting, electric lights to allow night racing and the development of a mobile starting gate. In 1947, the Maryland General Assembly responded to the growing trend by authorizing up to 100 days per year of live harness racing with no more than 20 racing days at any one facility.
In response, a group of Eastern Shore promoters formed the Ocean Downs Racing Association (ODRA), which was one of 22 applicants to the Maryland Racing Commission for harness racing licenses. Four applications were approved including Ocean Downs, Laurel Raceway, Rosecroft Raceway and Baltimore Raceway.
Construction of the new Ocean Downs racetrack and associated grandstands, barns, training tracks, stables and other facilities began in November 1947 with an opening date targeted prior to the following summer season. Construction issues caused delays and the new Ocean Downs racetrack did not officially open until July 25, 1949. The track struggled with financial issues initially, losing money its first two years, causing the ODRA leadership to consider a switch to thoroughbred racing.
However, the ODRA continued with its harness racing format with some assistance from the General Assembly, which approved an increase in the purses awarded three times over the next 10 years. As a result, Ocean Downs thrived through much of the rest of the next three decades. Live harness racing in Maryland expanded to a year-round sport at the state’s other approved racetracks, but Ocean Downs stuck with its June to September format, largely because it relied so heavily on the throngs of visitors to Ocean City and nearby resorts during the summer months.
Ocean Downs continued to thrive during the summer for the next three decades, but in the early 1980s, a series of ownership changes began that would ultimately result in the current ownership and the Casino at Ocean Downs. In 1984, local John Howard Burbage sold his 68-percent stake in Ocean Downs to Rosecroft Raceway for $2 million. The track was renamed as Delmarva Downs the following year.
In 1987, real estate developer Mark Vogel bought Rosecroft Raceway and with it Delmarva Downs. However, Vogel soon found himself in trouble after it was revealed he was diverting revenue from the tracks to failed real estate development deals. Vogel was ultimately forced to file for bankruptcy, and noted California philanthropist Frederick Weisman bought Delmarva Downs and the Rosecroft Raceway out of bankruptcy in 1991.
Under Weisman’s company, Colt Enterprises, Ocean Downs continued its summer live racing meet, but the track continued to lose money. After Weisman passed away, the trustees of his estate were reluctant to invest more money into the struggling Delmarva Downs and Rosecroft Raceway and instead opted to offer the two tracks for sale in 1993. An initial sale agreement was reached with the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, an organization made up of 1,400 horsemen from the mid-Atlantic region for $11 million pending financing. With the deal still pending, Delmarva Downs did not open during the summer of 1995 for the first time in its history.
About that time, Maryland first began exploring the issue of casino gambling on a limited basis in the state and a new player emerged. Bally’s Entertainment, anticipating Maryland would ultimately approve casino gambling at racetracks, stepped in with a competing offer of $12 million to purchase Delmarva Downs. Cloverleaf, fearful Bally’s would end live racing at the facility if slots were approved, ultimately worked out a deal where the horsemen’s association owned Rosecroft and Bally’s owned Delmarva Downs.
A competing offer for the two tracks came from William Rickman, who owned Delaware Park, but Bally’s ultimately emerged as the successful bidder of Delmarva Downs after considerable negotiation and legal wrangling. In 1996, the track was renamed Ocean Downs in homage to its original name and because it believed the public did not readily identify with Delmarva Downs.
Bally’s ran the Berlin racetrack for five years at a time during which it butted heads with the Maryland Racing Commission and the Maryland Jockey Club over simulcast rights and other issues. Throughout the controversy, live racing continued at Ocean Downs, but more significant changes were on the horizon. In 2000, Rickman agreed to buy Ocean Downs from Bally, with a contingent to reinvest in the facility, which had fallen into disrepair throughout the many ownership changes. Rickman made the upgrades with the hopes Maryland would someday soon approve casino gambling at racetracks and other new facilities around the state.
In 2008, Maryland voters approved by referendum a measure to allow slot machines at five casinos with one license allotted to Worcester County. Rickman and Ocean Downs was the only applicant for Worcester’s license and the new Casino at Ocean Downs was approved for 800 machines. Much of the old grandstand area was demolished as the shiny new casino was built, but Rickman stayed true to his agreement with Cloverleaf and continued a live racing meet on a limited basis during the construction.
The Casino at Ocean Downs opened in January 2011 with 750 machines and the summer live racing meet has continued ever since. After over six decades of tumultuous change and several different ownership groups, Ocean Downs opened its live racing meet on Thursday for its 65th year.