It’s 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon and a handful of people are gathered in a wing of the Greenmount Station Restaurant building watching what appears to be a chariot race on one of more than 15 bright, flat-screen TVs hanging from the wall.
But this is no re-run of “Ben Hur,” and those are not actually chariots. It’s the third day of the soft opening of the off-track betting, or OTB, site in Greenmount on the outskirts of Hampstead, and the event on the screen is actually known as “harness racing,” said Deborah Pro-Marshall, director of OTB operations with the Maryland Jockey Club, which manages the location.
“Everybody has a name for it. Some call it a chariot race,” she said. “Those horses are called a ‘standardbred horse,’ and they have what’s called a ‘driver’ who is in the chariot. That’s called a ‘bike.’ ”
The horses are called standardbred to distinguish them from thoroughbreds, the type of horses more commonly seen racing with a jockey on their back, Pro-Marshall said, and which are also seen on a number of the screens at the OTB. Those screens show livestreams from Virginia, Florida and even Chile, with horse and harness races being run every half-hour and every 15 minutes, respectively, throughout the day, according to Pro-Marshall.
“We normally open every day at 11 a.m., and the teller gets on at noon,” she said.
Maryland has more horses per square mile than any other U.S. state, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
But if you want to bet on a horse race in Maryland, there’s only so many places to go. There’s the state’s racetracks themselves, Laurel Park and Pimlico, and then there are the OTB sites, where you can watch races simulcast on TV and make a wager, though there were none in Carroll County.
At least, not until now.
The Greenmount OTB opened quietly on Monday, Jan. 22, a soft opening, to “iron out any wrinkles,” according to Pro-Marshall, but one that nevertheless drew some interest.
“We had a good dozen-and-a-half on Monday,” she said. “This is actually our sixth OTB that we’ve opened.”
Boonsboro, Horseshoe Casino, Perryville, Timonium and Riverboat Restaurant in Colonial Beach, Virginia — “it’s over the Potomac so it’s Maryland, it’s us,” Pro-Marshall said — play host to the other five, all operated by the Maryland Jockey Club.
And to local racing fans, Greenmount Station is certainly more convenient.
“I like to bet horses. I enjoy it,” said Gary Trent, of Mount Airy, who stopped in Wednesday afternoon to make a few wagers. “It’s a good time and this is closer than me going to Baltimore, or Laurel, places like that.”
The way it works is this: The OTB has several restaurant-style tables and chairs, along with several rows of what appear to be small study desks, known as betting carrels, where people can sit, watch races and prepare their wagers.
Or, for the novice, there is a teller counter with a big, colorful poster explaining how to place a bet, what odds mean and what the fancy wager names mean.
“Some people don’t know ‘win,’ ‘place’ and ‘show,’ ” Pro-Marshall said. “That’s first, second and third.”
The easiest bet is to wager on which horse will come in first, Pro-Marshall said, though there are more exotic wagers, such as the “exacta,” when betting two horses will come in first and second in a specific order.
“It’s a minimum $1 bet at most tracks,” she said. “The odds are the ratio of approximately how much you expect to win versus how much money you are going to bet.”
If a horse winning has 3-to-2 odds, Pro-Marshall said, “you’ll win $3 for every $2 you wager.”
The longer the odds, the bigger the win — though less likely. One person recently won $87,000 at the Timonium OTB, Pro-Marshall said, but they picked the winner of six races in a row.
But most people are much more casual than that, she said.
“I always tell people, don’t bet more than you can afford to lose. Set yourself a limit and that’s it because it’s supposed to be fun. You can come in with just a couple of dollars in your pocket, have a beer, have an appetizer or something.”
Although Greenmount Station does not manage the OTB, the restaurant does share a building, and OTB patrons can sit at and order from a bar in the OTB, while restaurant patrons have already made their way over to make a few casual wagers, according to owner Chris Richards.
“I think they will get a little bit of business from our customers and hopefully we will get a little bit of business from theirs,” he said.
The first big test will be Saturday, according to Richards and Pro-Marshall. That’s when the OTB will be taking wagers on the Pegasus World Cup, the horse race with the largest purse in the sport at present.
“It’s an exciting day,” Pro-Marshall said. “You have a lot of good horses that will be participating because they have to put up $1 million in order to race.”
That doesn’t mean you will walk out of the OTB a millionaire if you come out to Greenmount Station on Saturday to wager, Pro-Marshall said, but there will be larger payouts with all the excitement in the horse racing world.
“Sometimes during the week on a lesser day, the payouts aren’t as good — well, there are not that many people betting. But on Saturday there will be a ton of people betting," she said. “We’re going to be busy and it’s going to be fun.”
Wednesday may not have featured a purse as hefty as the Pegasus race — estimated to begin at 5:40 p.m. Saturday, although other races begin as early as 11:30 a.m. — but Trent is still pretty happy as he enjoys a drink at the bar: He doubled his money on a $100 bet.
“The best part is when you get to cash your ticket,” he said.