Off-track betting nears the start in Frederick

January 08, 1993|By Sandy Banisky and Ross Peddicord | Sandy Banisky and Ross Peddicord,Staff Writers

Coming soon, Marylanders, just what you need: more gambling.

The state's first off-track betting parlor is expected to open this spring at the Cracked Claw, a restaurant in the Frederick County crossroads of Urbana.

When outfitted with ticket windows and television monitors, the restaurant could seat hundreds of racing fans who could eat dinner while watching the horses run.

Approved by the legislature last year as a way to reinvigorate Maryland's racing industry, off-track betting has been slowed by thorny labor and contract negotiations.

And now it must start in the wake of keno, the controversial new game available in many taverns and restaurants from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Backers of off-track betting say it will boost racing revenues -- which have dropped 11 percent on thoroughbred tracks since 1990 -- while creating new jobs.

But local critics say state-sanctioned betting has gone too far. And even without off-track betting, they add, Maryland may be saturated with revenue-raising games.

"I'm not too pleased," says Frederick County Commissioner David P. Gray. "This gambling thing's gone too far. I'm not anxious to see Frederick County become a gambling center."

Besides, Mr. Gray says of the restaurant site, "We're building a high school right next to it. Isn't that a lovely combination?"

Gail T. Bowerman, vice president of the commissioners, says the county recently sanctioned "tip jars," dollar bets at taverns and fraternal organizations, with the proceeds directed to non-profit organizations. She worries that keno and off-track betting with dilute those revenues.

"How much people can or will spend on gambling is limited," Ms. Bowerman says.

And Ron Sundergill, the commissioners board president, says off-track betting "may be an economic drain" on the county.

"People will be spending money betting on horses and those funds will go to the race tracks -- which are not in Frederick County."

Johnny Poole, the owner of the Cracked Claw (which will return to its former name, Peter Pan), is to go before the Frederick

County Planning and Zoning Commission Feb. 10 for site approval.

After that, the restaurant needs formal approval by the Maryland Racing Commission.

The commission will go over the contract he has made with the tracks, look into his financial background, conduct a character check and then hold a public hearing to listen to community reaction.

"I have gotten great feedback from the people in the surrounding area," Mr. Poole says.

More than 100 business executives have proposed sites for off-track betting.

Ted Snell, president of Rosecroft Raceway, and Tom Lattanzi, director of corporate relations for the Laurel-Pimlico tracks, have inspected between 40 and 50 locations.

The process is not quick.

"It's not like putting a keno machine in a restaurant," Mr. Snell says. "That can be done almost instantly."

"With parimutuel betting, it is a long, tedious and trying situation."

"It requires great planning and organization. We have to deal with the labor unions, the horsemen's groups, the totalizator companies, the entrepreneur who wants to open a parlor, and then get all of these parties to agree. It's been mind-boggling."

Mr. Poole, 67, says the project would cost him about $100,000 to start -- including installation of wires, television monitors and a satellite dish.

He would lease the mutuel machines from AmTote International Inc., the Hunt Valley totalizator company that has the same arrangement with the tracks.

He expects to hire 30 to 40 new employees, including tellers, waitresses and kitchen help, and security. Operating costs, he says, would be paid from his percentage of the betting proceeds, "a little more than 1 1/2 percent."

The restaurant's handle -- the amount of money wagered -- is projected at about $40,000 for the afternoon thoroughbred races and between $20,000 to $30,000 for the nighttime harness races. Mr. Poole hopes also to profit from increased sales of food and beverages at his restaurant. "I hope to increase that volume by $1 million a year," he says.

Meanwhile, talks have stalled between track operators and Frank Turner, owner of the Ramada Convention Center in Hagerstown, where racing managers had hoped to open a second facility.

Mr. Jacobs says he is looking at other Hagerstown locations and hopes that Mr. Turner will resume negotiations.

A third major OTB parlor is to be opened in Cecil County. But track personnel are having a difficult time finding a large enough site to handle anticipated crowds in that area.

"Those are the three major locations," says Laurel-Pimlico race course operator Joe De Francis. "We have a second-tier of sites we are considering in Cambridge, Chesapeake Beach, La Plata and Lexington Park."

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