Timonium fairgrounds parlor that caused uproar now a 'nicer' place to bet

Once open 10 days a year, Timonium OTB parlor now draws 200 a day on weekends.

A few minutes after noon at the new off-track betting emporium at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Baltimore County, Gus "Tiger" Papa, 86, sits at a table he says he has occupied every day for the past month.

A bank of flat-screen TVs flashes the early action from Aqueduct in New York and Gulfstream in Florida. A young waiter comes, takes orders politely and goes

The Towson man says he can't recall enjoying his small-stakes hobby as much as he does at Timonium Off-Track Betting, a year-round facility that opened last month in the face of significant community opposition.

"This place is just so pleasant," he says, and glances around at the two-level parlor with its freshly polished tables, blond parquet floors and adjoining restaurant.

"It's clean. It's convenient. You can get a great bowl of soup or a salad anytime you want."

Located on the second floor of the grandstand at the fairgrounds track, the 2,700-square-foot space played host to off-track betting for years, but only during the Timonium summer meet, which lasts just 10 days.

That changed in February, when the body that governs the horse racing industry in the state voted 7-0 to grant the Maryland Jockey Club permission to run off-track betting at the site year-round.

The Jockey Club — which oversees betting operations at all Maryland tracks — now owns the fairgrounds enterprise. It leases the space from the Maryland State Fair.

Approval came after the leaders of several local neighborhood associations, local politicians and residents cried foul in petitions and at public hearings.

Their main concerns: that enhanced gambling would attract criminal activity and hurt property values; that the business would slow already congested traffic along York and Timonium roads, and that the move could amount to a first step toward slots or casino gambling on the site in a few years.

Hundreds said what offended them most was that the Jockey Club and Fairgrounds began renovation for the project before notifying the public of the plan — even before the Maryland Racing Commission had voted.

Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, whose district includes Timonium, says he believes the plan's supporters kept things quiet because they feared the kind of pushback that arose in the past when legislators and industry officials floated the idea of bringing slots to the 106-acre fairgrounds.

The plan became public only in January, when Shawn Blair, the president of the Stratford Community Association, heard a friend mention it at dinner one night.

The Timonium man contacted Kach, who quickly introduced legislation in the County Council to ban off-track betting on the site.

Del. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, and Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, sponsored similar bills in the General Assembly.

More than 800 opponents signed a petition against the plan. Hundreds packed a public hearing in mid-February.

The Maryland Racing Commission — a department of the state's labor, licensing and regulation office, which had the power to decide the matter unilaterally — approved the parlor two weeks later.

Fairgrounds and racing officials soon "settled the key issues," Kach says, by signing a document vowing never to open a casino at the site. Kach, West and Brochin all dropped their bills.

When the facility opened at full capacity on March 19, it became the fourth year-round off-track betting site in the state, following Pimlico, Riverboat on the Potomac and Horseshoe Casino Baltimore.

Jockey Club and State Fair officials project that Timonium OTB will net $500,000 a year in revenue, much of which they plan to spend on renovating the track and its fading grandstand.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the racing division of the Stronach Group, said the facility should generate a handle of $15 million to $20 million a year, while offering the community an "amenity" that is "good for the game, good for the horsemen, good for everybody."

"The off-track betting network is one of our strategies for bringing the horse business back in Maryland," he said. Stronach also owns the Laurel and Pimlico tracks, and others nationwide.

On a recent early Tuesday afternoon, 13 men and women made wagers in the otherwise quiet place. Their eyes were fixed on monitors broadcasting races live from tracks in Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona and beyond.

Only one person made much of a racket.

Sam Purpora, 71, rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, snapping his fingers, while watching the seventh race from Mahoning Valley in Ohio.

"Six-one, six-one, six-one!" the Kingsville man hollered, urging a win on his exacta wager.

The top two finished as he'd bet.

"I won $6," he murmured, then headed to a machine to make another bet.

A woman clad in black, a computer tablet in hand, made her way through the room.

"My guys are well behaved here, but you might hear them yell a little on the last turn," said Deborah Pro-Marshall, director of OTB operations for the Jockey Club.

Part manager, part mother hen, she knows everyone in the place — she points out a table of regulars from North East, 50 miles away, and another group that once bet at Pimlico.

She says the handle has been better than expected, considering there has been no grand opening yet.

Between 50 and 100 bettors have come most weekdays, she says, and 200 or more each Saturday and Sunday, to enjoy Timonium's unique benefits.

Its 530 seats for betting on horses, for example, far outnumber Horseshoe's 100.. And unlike Pimlico, it has a high-end restaurant, the adjoining Grandstand Grille, that's open year-round.

As the day wears on, 10 cars in the parking lot become 40, 15 guests turn into 45, and it's hard to find anyone who disagrees with Pro-Marshall's assessment.

Papa says he can't understand the concerns many voiced about traffic. If the parlor draws 100 cars a day, he says, that's nothing compared to the 33,000 the Maryland State Highway Administration has said ply the stretch of York Road outside on an average day.

"There's more traffic at McDonald's down the street," he says.

Dave Marsh, 54, says he comes to Timonium three times a week. The White Marsh man says he's thankful it's a place that does not attract the kind of "down-on-their-luck, hard-core bettors" who "sit around all day for someone to make a big score," then ask for a handout.

"It's set up nice. It's laid-back, quieter. I like it here. I really do," he says.

Marsh continues with his practice of quietly making relatively high-risk, high-reward bets, playing the Trifectas and Pick 3's, for example.

Down at the end of his table, Donald Abrams, 86, plays things a lot safer.

Long ago, the Pikesville man says, he and his buddies used to play the craps tables in Atlantic City. He traveled long distances for years, playing slots and taking part in other gambling.

In recent decades, he bet mainly at Pimlico, but he finds things calmer at the fairgrounds.

"There's no cursing, screaming, hollering and clapping," he says.

Nowadays, he'll bet about $200 on 50 simple bets, hope he breaks even, and use whatever's left to start all over again the next day — at Timonium, which he says feels as much like a social club as it does a betting parlor.

"I've got nothing better to do," Abrams says, "and this is the perfect place to do it."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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