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Hundreds of community members debate off-track betting in Timonium

Community members wait to be let inside a public meeting on plans to bring off-track betting to the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.
Community members wait to be let inside a public meeting on plans to bring off-track betting to the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. (Tim Prudente)

An overflowing crowd of opponents and supporters showed up Thursday night to sound off on plans to bring off-track betting to the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

The Maryland Racing Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the plans. But the commission held a public hearing Thursday and more than 370 people came. Some neighbors waited in the cold before officials consented and opened the doors to all, about a half-hour into the meeting.

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The Maryland Jockey Club plans to transform a vacant grandstand into a year-round, simulcasting betting outlet — the first of its kind in Baltimore County.

Some 150 people signed up to testify against the plan. About 115 people signed up in favor, including Mike Pons, owner of a thoroughbred farm in Bel Air.

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"Timonium is a focal point of the equine industry here in Maryland," said Pons, who owns Country Life & Merryland Farms. "[Off-track betting] is a natural extension. This is something that would help us."

Proponents say revenue from year-round off-track betting would shore up the Jockey Club and the aging Timonium racetrack.

Opponents, however, fear the betting would cause more traffic on already-congested York Road. They said it could be a gateway for a future casino in Timonium, though such expansion would require legislative action. Also, opponents expressed concern the year-round betting could bring crime and drive down property values.

Shawn Blair, president of nearby Stratford Community Association, said the residential area was the wrong place for off-track betting. Further, he said the community had been kept in the dark about the plans.

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"There's a lot of people here tonight. They're here because there's something rotten," he said. "The whole way this matter has been handled stinks."

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.

Sal Sinatra, the jockey club's general manager, said off-track betting in Timonium would operate Sunday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. An estimated 50 to 100 people would arrive daily to bet, he said.

"I don't think the number of cars of people coming will be a concern," he said. "It won't be a casino. The place is just to take bets on horses."

The Jockey Club went ahead with upgrades to the betting room before earning approval from the racing commission. Work already has begun to install flat-screen TVs and hardwood floors in the betting rooms.

Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach said he was blindsided by the plans.

"We have the cart before the horse," Kach said. "I would have liked the community to have been briefed ahead of time."

Kach called Thursday's meeting a "last-ditch effort to let the public be heard."

Last week, he introduced legislation to block the plan. A hearing is scheduled March 1 for his bill.

"If that bill passes," he said, "this is over."

Proponents, however, said the revenue would be a shot in the arm to Maryland's storied but struggling racing industry.

Donald Metzger, a Baltimore County racing enthusiast, urged the commission to approve the plans.

"This is a tremendous opportunity," he said. "We would be foolish to turn our backs on it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this report.

@TimPrudente1

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