Keeping the spirit on track Racing: The sadness over a tragic barn fire Monday won't keep the Ocean Downs facility in Berlin from celebrating its golden anniversary tonight.

July 25, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- The children collected the plastic flowers and wooden cross and erected the small memorial. They put it in the ashen ruins of the barn where five horses died this week at Bally's at Ocean Downs, with a note that began:

"I sorry for 3 owners of the 5 horses that happened on fire."

The simple memorial epitomized the spirit and devotion that for half a century has fortified this summer harness track four miles west of Ocean City.

Tonight, precisely 50 years after the first horse-drawn sulkies raced in the sultry night air, the track will celebrate its golden anniversary with races and festivities including a concert by Jumpin' Johnny Sansone's blues band from New Orleans.

"Jimmy Callahan [former track executive director] used to say there'd always be racing at Ocean Downs because it's a way of life for some people," said Hugh Gallagher, the track's director of racing. "He didn't mean only the horsemen. He also meant residents of the area and the summer visitors who started coming here as children.

"You always see a lot of kids around the pickup trucks in the parking lot. When they get old enough, you'll see them back here with their girlfriends. Three or four years later, they'll be bringing their children."

Gallagher, 50, came to Ocean Downs as a boy with his stepfather, Eric Frederick, the former driver, trainer and owner of Standardbreds and a former member of the Maryland Racing Commission.

While in high school, Gallagher worked at the track as an usher. After working at out-of-state tracks for 15 years, he returned when Bally's, the casino and entertainment company, began managing Ocean Downs in 1995. Bally's Maryland Inc. owns the track.

"I worked at the Meadowlands [in New Jersey], probably the most money-driven track in the country," Gallagher said. "There, racing's a business. Here, as I said, it's a way of life.

"That's why claiming races [in which horses can be purchased for a set price] don't work here. Nobody wants to lose their horses. They love them too much."

And that's why Monday's fire, which destroyed a 28-stall barn and killed five horses, devastated the racing community -- even as it brought people closer.

Investigators haven't determined a cause but have begun considering arson as a possibility, according to Jeff McMahon, Worcester County fire marshal. Dennis Dowd, track president, has provided investigators a list of former employees recently barred from the barn area and employees who recently resigned.

Neither McMahon nor Dowd would elaborate.

Six in the barn

Only six horses occupied the 50-year-old wooden barn when fire swept through it in minutes. One horse was rescued, a 7-year-old gelding named Lee Buck.

One that died, Fast Eddie O, was nearly saved.

A rescuer led him out, but the horse jerked free and ran back into his stall.

"They think that's their safe shelter," said Roland Hall, 57, who owned Fast Eddie O and owns Lee Buck -- both with his brother, Vic.

They owned just the two horses. Roland is produce manager at the Berlin Food Lion, and Vic is the track's operations officer.

Their father, Norman, raced Standardbred ponies until he was killed in a racing accident in 1987. Both sons grew up on the backstretch.

"I'm 40," Vic Hall said. "I've been coming here 40 years."

The fire destroyed not only half their racing stock but also all their equipment -- sulky, jogging cart, harness, even their bandages, towels and bucket.

Insurance from the horsemen's association should cover at least some of the owners' losses.

"I will surely appreciate that, but they can't replace my horse," said Jim Bunting, 69, who owned Tyler Three, a 6-year-old mare he bought three years ago for $2,500.

Bunting, a retired house painter from nearby Whaleyville who owns one other horse, said: "They're part of the family, that's the best way I can explain it to you."

Offers of aid

Dowd, the track president, said horsemen from several states have called with offers to help. Bally's at Ocean Downs has set up a fund. (For information, call Norma Haines at 410-641-0600.)

The track will donate its share of money wagered on at least one race Aug. 1, and Hilton Hotel Corp. has donated weekend stays in Atlantic City to be raffled, Dowd said.

After merging with Bally's, Hilton is the parent company of Bally's Maryland Inc., the track's ninth owner.

Through the changes, Ocean Downs has ridden the waves of success and near-collapse. Under Bally's, it is struggling.

Thirty-five miles north in Delaware, Harrington Raceway, a once-forgotten harness track, pays racing purses of $110,000 to $120,000 a day, compared with Ocean Downs' $20,000 a day. Harrington's purses are financed by slot machines.

Bally's entered Maryland because of the prospect of slots. It lost about $500,000 last year and will probably lose about $250,000 this year, Dowd said.

"Under current conditions, I think the best we could do is break even," he said. "We've got a contract with the horsemen that runs through next year. What happens after that depends on a lot of factors."

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