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Plan for simulcast racing at state fairgrounds draws opposition

The Maryland Jockey Club plans to open a horse racing simulcasting and off-track betting facility at the state fairgrounds in Timonium next week, angering elected officials and community leaders who say they were caught off-guard by the plan.

The jockey club has already installed flat-screen monitors and furniture in a 2,500-square-foot area of the grandstand, said Sal Sinatra, the jockey club's general manager. The opening is planned for next Friday, but the jockey club could hold a "soft" opening earlier in the week, he said.

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Sinatra said the simulcast area will be an "added amenity" to the fairgrounds that will help raise money to improve the horse-racing facilities there. The jockey clubs runs a horse-racing meet during the Maryland State Fair each summer.

The Maryland Racing Commission, which regulates horse racing in the state, plans to hold a public meeting on the proposal at 4 p.m. on Friday at the fairgrounds.

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Elected officials who represent the area around the fairgrounds say that's a poor time to hold a meeting and that they didn't receive enough notice to spread the word to their constituents.

"The fact that the jockey club can unilaterally make a decision like this is news to me. And the fact that there's minimal community input needed — if any — they're way off base," said state Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat who represents the area.

Brochin said the Maryland Racing Commission mailed a letter about the meeting to his district office that didn't make its way to his Annapolis office until this week.

Brochin said he and other elected officials, as well as local community associations, should have been notified earlier of the Maryland Jockey Club's plans.

Brochin said the simulcasting facility — where races from other racetracks are broadcast and gamblers can place bets — would worsen traffic problems along already-busy York Road. And he said there's no interest in the community in expanding gambling opportunities to Timonium.

Brochin, Del. Susan Aumann and Del. Chris West wrote a letter to the Maryland Racing Commission on Tuesday asking for Friday's meeting to be postponed. Commission director J. Michael Hopkins did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

D. Andrew Cashman, general manager of the fairgrounds, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Sinatra said the simulcast area will be open from noon until 7:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and from noon until 11 p.m. the rest of the week. It will draw 100 to 150 people per day with about 35 to 50 cars per day, he said. He thinks the simulcast area will draw bettors who currently are driving to an off-track betting facility across the state line in York, Pa.

Sinatra said the plans have been in the works for several months, and elected officials were notified Jan. 6.

Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican who represents the area, said he's researching whether he can pass a zoning bill to put a stop to the simulcast facility. Kach said he learned about the simulcast facility this week.

Shawn Blair, who lives in a neighborhood across York Road from the fairgrounds, found out about the simulcast plans during a chance encounter at a local restaurant with someone familiar with the plans.

"If I hadn't gone out for a glass of wine that night, I never would have heard about it," said Blair, who is president of the Stratford Community Association.

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Blair has been rallying elected officials and his neighbors to oppose the plans for simulcasting at the fairgrounds.

He said the community already fought against gambling at the fairgrounds a decade ago, when slot machines were first legalized in Maryland. A coalition successfully lobbied to exclude Timonium from the areas where businesses could apply to have slot machines, he said.

"That's why they're going about this quietly," Blair said.

Blair said neighbors understand that living near the fairgrounds means dealing with traffic from the state fair and the various festivals and shows, which have expanded over the years. But adding a gambling facility that will be open daily is too much, he said.

"They're just trying to shove this down everybody's throats and shove it down in the middle of a snowstorm," he said.

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