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Off-track betting approved at state fairgrounds despite opposition

Eric Avila with Phoenix Electric works in the area where the simulcasting will be housed at the Timonium Fairgrounds.
Eric Avila with Phoenix Electric works in the area where the simulcasting will be housed at the Timonium Fairgrounds. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Over significant community opposition, the Maryland Racing Commission approved a proposal Monday allowing the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium to become the first Baltimore County site to host year-round off-track betting.

The commission announced late Monday that it granted the off-track permit to the Maryland Jockey Club in a 7-0 vote conducted as a telephone poll. Two members — Mary Louise Preis and former chairman Bruce Quade — abstained.

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The Jockey Club operates the state's horse racing tracks and their betting operations and will own the off-track betting parlor, leasing the 2,700-square-foot facility on the second floor of the fairgrounds grandstand from the state fair. It will become the state's fourth simulcasting outlet, joining Pimlico Race Course, Riverboat on the Potomac and Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which started simulcasting last year.

Off-track betting allows bettors to wager on races at tracks around the world and then watch the races live on monitors. The Jockey Club has said simulcasting is convenient for bettors and allows the industry to develop its base.

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But Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach and Del. Chris West, who have introduced legislation in their respective bodies to block the plan, said Monday they will continue to oppose the betting operation until residents are satisfied with it.

"I'm very angered and disappointed." Kach said Monday. "There are still issues. This will not end until there is a reasonable solution."

Said West: "This makes me more determined to try to move my bill forward. The state racing commission clearly has its own agenda, and it's clearly focused on advancing the interest of the state racing industry. No component relates to the surrounding neighborhoods."

John McDaniel, the commission chairperson, said Monday night that he delayed the vote to allow more time to address remaining concerns.

"The vote was actually delayed on a number of occasions to give more opportunity for the applicants to have meetings with the community groups that were concerned about this," McDaniel said. "We ultimately determined the applicants had done everything correctly and properly and submitted their request appropriately. I realize it was a political issue. Our response is to do the right thing, follow the rules and regulations appropriately, and check off all the boxes."

But some local residents complained they were not given timely notice about the plan and said they were concerned about traffic congestion and diminishing the site's family-friendly atmosphere. Others said they feared the betting room could lead to casino gambling.

"I would have hoped the Maryland Racing Commission would have held off," said Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council. "I'm not shocked, but I am disappointed."

At a recent public meeting about the off-track betting site, about 150 people signed up to testify against the plan and about 115 people signed up in favor.

Fairgrounds officials supported the arrangement, in part because the fair will claim a share of the revenues along with the Jockey Club and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Fairgrounds officials said the site's share of the money — estimated at about $500,000 per year — would help shore up the faded grandstand and adjacent buildings that were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The officials say the current 10 days of live racing and simulcasting — held in conjunction with the fair each summer — aren't producing enough revenue to maintain the grandstand and more than 600 stalls.

William C. Marlow Jr., chairman of the state fair's racing committee, said Monday that it's undecided when the betting room will open but that "we're not going to have a surprise opening. We're sensitive to the community."

Marlow said the fair is relying on the additional revenues that betting will supply to maintain the site.

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If any of the bills blocking the plan are enacted, "the State Fair would seriously considering moving," Marlow said. "We're prepared for that."

The Jockey Club and State Fair recently have been upgrading the betting room — which is about the size of a high-school auditorium — adding flat-screen monitors and a new hardwood floor.

In response to residents' concerns about a casino, the fair, a nonprofit organization, said it provided written assurance to the commission that it won't pursue slot machines in the next 10 years, according to Marlow.

But Rockel said Monday: "Five to ten years isn't really enough of an assurance."

A public hearing on Kach's bill is scheduled March 1.

"I don't intend to withdraw it unless there is some sort of agreement between now and March 1," he said.

Kach said there are zoning concerns. A County Council attorney, Thomas H. Bostwick, recently sent a legal opinion to Kach saying current zoning permits off-track betting there only during the 10 days of the fair.

But, Marlow said, that interpretation of zoning rules is not shared by the fair.

The Jockey Club said it would be flexible in establishing the betting room's hours to conform with community standards. Sal Sinatra, the Jockey Club's general manager, said during a recent community meeting that the room tentatively would operate 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. An estimated 50 to 100 people would arrive daily to bet, he estimated.

Sinatra said in a written statement Monday night: "We are looking forward to opening our off-track betting facility in Timonium. We also look forward to continue building a strong relationship and partnership with the local community."

Proposals to offer simulcasting year-round at the fairgrounds have been floated for more than 20 years but have never cleared procedural hurdles.

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.

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