The new flat-screen televisions have been mounted on the walls above the just-installed hardwood floor, and the betting machines are switched on.

But it's not post time just yet at the refurbished off-track betting room at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium — and it won't be anytime soon, if community and elected leaders have their way.


With fairgrounds officials' support, the Maryland Jockey Club plans to turn the room on the second floor of a faded old grandstand into a full-scale, year-round simulcasting betting outlet, the first of its kind in Baltimore County.

They say the revenue from year-round off-track betting would help push the Jockey Club's bottom line into the black for the first time in years and fund needed updates to the Timonium racetrack, where the paint is peeling and some of the concession stands' signs are riddled with holes.

But first they need the backing of the Maryland Racing Commission, which has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for Thursday night, and could vote at any time.

They would also like to reach consensus with local elected officials such as Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, who introduced legislation last week to block the plan.

Kach and other community leaders say the racing industry jumped out of the gate too soon. They point to the upgrades to the 2,700-square-foot room, about the size of a high school auditorium, which were nearly completed as many neighbors were just learning what was going on.

On Wednesday, Jockey Club and fairgrounds officials held an open house to show the improvements to the community. When the work is done, they plan to have 105 televisions in the betting room and an adjoining restaurant, which is also being modernized.

State Sen. James Brochin and other critics say it is noteworthy that the Jockey Club went ahead with the upgrades before receiving approval from the racing commission. To Brochin and others, the club's action amounted to hosting a block party and excluding your next-door neighbors.

Some in the community say expanded betting could clog traffic and tarnish the family feel of a place known in the summer for Ferris wheels and carnival treats.

"I think it's incredibly presumptuous to have an open house before you even get approval," said Brochin, a Democrat who represents the area. "It's really a slap in the face. There needs to be a heck of a lot of give and take."

The plan's advocates say the betting room has always been insulated from the Maryland State Fair. The room has the support of state industry groups such as the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Horse Breeders' Association.

On Wednesday night, about 80 community members met with jockey club and fairgrounds officials to discuss the plan. The residents expressed concerns that a casino could one day end up on the site. They discussed the possibility of drafting a memorandum of understanding in which the jockey club would assure that the betting room's operating hours would conform with the community's wishes.

"I'm willing to work with the community to draft up (a memorandum)," Sal Sinatra, the jockey club's general manager, said afterward. He said he apologized to the community that they didn't get more information about the plan sooner and that he didn't intend them to feel "blind-sided."

Timonium — which many years ago held 42 days of live racing — now stages racing and off-track betting 10 days a year, during the summer meet. Off-track wagers are placed in the room that is being refurbished. It previously had about 50 television monitors, according to the Jockey Club.

Sinatra said he is happy to talk with critics.


"I deal with the racing commission. We've been designing, building and thinking about this probably for the better part of six months," he said. "I'm not trying to jam something down their throats. I want them to have some comfort that this is a good thing. I will live by whatever guidelines. You want me to restrict hours? I have no problems with that."

The cost of the betting-room upgrades is being shared by the Jockey Club and the state fair's legal entity, which declined to provide a budget estimate.

"It's painting, ripping up the old floor, those types of things," said attorney William C. Marlow Jr., chairman of the state fair's racing committee. "It's not that big a project."

Off-track betting, or simulcasting, allows bettors to wager on races at tracks around the world and then watch the races live on monitors. It accounts for an important share of the Jockey Club's revenues.

Timonium would become the fourth year-round off-track facility, joining Pimlico Race Course, Riverboat on the Potomac and the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore. Laurel is not classified as an off-track site because it runs so much live racing.

Last year, $132.8 million was wagered at Pimlico, Laurel and Timonium and at the off-track sites. The off-track wagers accounted for $39.3 million, about 30 percent of the total.

The Horseshoe has been one of the Jockey Club's off-track success stories. Its simulcasting room has been expanded three times since it opened last year. More than $7.4 million has been bet there, according to the racing commission.

Off-track betting proceeds are shared among the off-track betting operator, the racetrack, horsemen and breeders.

If Timonium's off-track operation attracted the same betting volume as the Horseshoe's, the Jockey Club and the fairgrounds would each net about $500,000 a year, according to Sinatra.

"We're trying to position OTB as a matter of convenience to get more eyes on our Maryland product," Sinatra said. "Convenience is a big thing, given today's society."

But to some, the Timonium betting parlor has become a symbol of state overreach.

Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, expressed a litany of concerns.

"It's the traffic situation, it's the fear this is getting the door open to ultimately a full casino at Timonium, and the idea that property values may decrease for those communities immediately adjacent to the racetrack," he said. "Just a variety of issues."

He said the community council was "preparing to voice our sentiments to the racing commission."

Sinatra said he is eager to dispel the notion that a Timonium casino might be on the way.

"The law does not allow it," he said. "I want nothing to do with a casino."

But Kach said the betting parlor could violate county zoning rules that forbid the racing commission from initiating off-track betting beyond the 10 days it is now held.

Kach's legislation would prohibit off-track betting at Timonium. He said the measure needs to be amended to allow the 10 days of off-track betting during the summer meet.

"That was done by mistake," he said. "It was just a drafting error."


A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for March 1.

"The big problem all along is the fact that none of us were informed of this at all," Kach said. "A constituent found out about it when he was in a restaurant talking to somebody. Now you have this lack of trust."

But he left open the possibility of a resolution.

"I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to come to some agreement," he said. "Let's make a list of all the issues that people have. I think people are reasonable."