Ocean Downs finds cure for summertime blues Attendance and handle up 12 percent from '97

September 17, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Now that Bally's at Ocean Downs has concluded what its president calls a highly successful summer harness meet, track management is preparing for fall and winter duties.

They include working to open an off-track betting facility on the Eastern Shore, advancing the concept of telephone wagering and preparing to lobby state legislators for continued help in sustaining purses.

"We realize the slots issue will rise again," said Dennis Dowd, president of the harness track near Ocean City. "But slots or no, we still have to do something about purses."

The grant from the legislature this year allowed Ocean Downs to pay purses of slightly more than $20,000 a day (compared with $17,500 last year). But that still pales in comparison with the $110,000 a day from slots-rich Harrington Raceway in Delaware.

Nevertheless, Ocean Downs managed to conduct 40 nights of harness racing and improve its night attendance by 3.7 percent and night handle by 4.1 percent.

"We, quite frankly, find that remarkable," Dowd said.

That's because this summer Ocean Downs offered thoroughbred simulcasts in the afternoon. It did not last year. Dowd said he would have expected the afternoon activity to siphon customers from the live racing at night.

But live racing thrived because of a combination of favorable weather, clever scheduling of races and a fun, family atmosphere that drew patrons from surrounding resorts.

Dowd said night attendance averaged about 1,700 and night handle about $100,000. Add to that the day activity on simulcasts, he said, and the increases over last year were about 12 percent in attendance and handle.

"All in all, it was a healthy summer," Dowd said.

Whether that means the track makes money, considering what it has spent on improvements, remains to be seen, he said. Ocean Downs lost about $700,000 last year.

Since ending live racing Sept. 5, Ocean Downs is offering simulcasts every day except Monday and Tuesday. Beginning Oct. 3, it will present country line dancing every Saturday night until reopening for live racing next summer.

In the meantime, Dowd and his colleagues have begun looking for a site for off-track betting. Last year, they found one in Hagerstown, but the thoroughbred interests protested. Since then, the Maryland Jockey Club of Joe De Francis has agreed to let Ocean Downs pursue OTBs on the Eastern Shore.

Dowd said he also looks forward to reading the regulations the Maryland Racing Commission is writing for betting on horse racing via televisions in homes and offices. Ocean Downs then will decide how to try to profit from that new source of income, he said.

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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