Off-track betting: Win, place, show Gambling: Four years after their creation in Maryland, off-track betting parlors have quickly become an important source of profits for the state's horse racing industry.

July 02, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

URBANA -- At the Cracked Claw restaurant south of Frederick, nobody has to wait very long for the next post time.

Amid a dizzying blur of horseflesh and cash, gamblers at this off-track betting parlor scan banks of television screens, looking for the right wagers on some of the 200-plus races beamed daily from tracks around the country.

While the heart of Maryland racing still beats along the rail at Laurel and in the Pimlico infield on Preakness day, off-track betting at distant locations such as the Cracked Claw has developed in its first three years into an important part of the state's gambling industry.

Last year, thousands of patrons visited the state's five OTB parlors. And the revenue generated there now accounts for a substantial part of the overall profits of Laurel and Pimlico.

"They've been a success and the people like them," said Allan C. Levey, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. "They're convenient to a lot of people that wouldn't normally go to the tracks."

Authorized by the General Assembly and then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1992, off-track betting is now featured at the Cracked Claw and four other restaurants -- Poor Jimmy's in North East; the Riverboat, which sits over Maryland waters in the Potomac River near Colonial Beach, Va.; the Shoals in Cambridge; and the newest outlet, the Port Tobacco Marina in Charles County.

The racing industry would like to add two more betting parlors -- in Hagerstown and Timonium.

The idea of OTB is to take racing to where the people are, even those who live too far to make it to one of the state's four main thoroughbred or harness tracks.

In 1995, bettors at the off-track parlors wagered more than $80 million -- a substantial increase from the $73.5 million gambled the year before.

The parlor operators keep about 4 percent of the betting handle, although much of that is eaten up by expenses. Pimlico and Laurel, the state's two main thoroughbred tracks, receive about 5 percent of the daytime bets handled at OTBs, while nighttime proceeds are divided by the parlors and the harness tracks.

For Laurel and Pimlico, off-track betting generated roughly $3 million in profits last year. On paper, that accounted for the bulk of the tracks' total $4.2 million profit in 1995.

Joseph A. De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel, said off-track betting is "all in all, a definite plus," though he contends that many customers would bet at the tracks if the parlors were not there.

Almost half of Maryland's off-track wagering last year took place at the Cracked Claw, a sprawling mega-restaurant in the Frederick County countryside with a faux-New Orleans look, peacocks caged out front, steamed crabs for dinner and, most important, 110 television monitors.

"A lot of people don't ever go to the track, but they'll come here," said John "Pappy" Poole, who owns the restaurant with his wife, B. J. "There's a stigma about going to the track."

While the daytime races attract a lot of retirees, nighttime brings a younger group, Poole said.

"They come in and spend $20 or $30 betting," Poole said. "If they win, great. But if they don't, it's the same cost as going to the movies."

The televisions show the action from as many as 11 tracks a day, which means three races might be running simultaneously -- from Kentucky, New York and Florida, perhaps.

Keeping it all straight is no problem for regulars such as William L. Morton, 41, a consultant from Washington, who settles in for a dozen hours of betting a week. Morton sets up shop at a table close to the television screens about three times a week, with a pack of Marlboro Lights and his computer-generated selections spread out in front of him.

A longtime bettor, Morton takes annual trips to Saratoga, Churchill Downs and some other picturesque American tracks. But when he's home, he does his gambling at the Cracked Claw and hasn't set foot in the Laurel race course for a couple of years.

"This is a much more pleasant atmosphere," he said.

While the Cracked Claw is a resounding success, off-track betting results elsewhere have been mixed.

At Poor Jimmy's in Cecil County, the betting "handle" slipped from $16.8 million in 1994 to $14.3 million last year, according to figures supplied by the Maryland Racing Commission. Betting at the Shoals in Cambridge also dropped last year.

Unlike the Cracked Claw, which draws heavily from populous Montgomery County, those sites suffer from being in more rural tTC areas. And, as the freshness of off-track gambling wears off, those OTB parlors must do a better job of marketing, observers said.

"We span the spectrum from very successful to one or two that certainly have performed below expectations," De Francis said.

The racing industry has been trying for a long time to expand off-track betting into two areas -- Hagerstown and north Baltimore County.

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