Betting site might be in final stretch Patrons' views mixed on panel's decision

November 29, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

About 60 miles from the track and $700 ahead in winnings, Ernest Bailey wagers $40 on a long-shot for the one-two-three showing in yesterday's fourth race at Laurel.

As he watches the horses head to the finish line on an overhead television screen, Bailey calls out, "Come on baby!" only to see his picks flip-flop near the end.

"You win some, you lose some," he says, pushing his losing ticket aside on a wooden table at Poor Jimmy's in Cecil County -- an off-track betting facility whose future was put in question last week.

The Maryland Racing Commission unanimously voted not to renew the off-track betting license after long-standing complaints about conditions at Poor Jimmy's, whose OTB parlor looks more like a no-frills union hall.

"It's a dive," patron Tim Geraghty said yesterday in the smoke-filled room, where about 150 people studied race results and made bets on races simulcast from nearly a dozen tracks across the United States.

The parlor -- which shares a building along U.S. 40 in North East with a steakhouse restaurant and bar -- has tiny bathrooms with what patrons termed chronic plumbing problems, and a perpetual cloud of smoke that hovers under a drop-ceiling stained yellow by those nicotine clouds.

Dive or not, Poor Jimmy's -- one of seven off-track betting sites in Maryland -- is a home away from home for many racing fans who visit regularly. Yesterday, the bettors sat side by side along Poor Jimmy's row of tables, eyes fixed on the televisions showing live races from New York to Florida.

Sonny Hughes, a retired state juvenile detention supervisor from Havre de Grace, has been a patron of Poor Jimmy's since it opened six years ago.

"The other OTB's may be nicer and prettier, but it's not like it is here," Hughes said. "Everybody is like family."

Located at U.S. 40 and Route 272, Poor Jimmy's handles more than $9 million in wagers annually. The racing commission decided to close it anyway -- though that might send betting business and tax revenue to neighboring Delaware.

Last year, track managers in Maryland poured $100,000 into Poor Jimmy's, improving the floors, renovating the air conditioning and installing a ventilation system. Racing commissioners questioned whether the improvements are enough to compete with the glitzier Delaware Park track, whose slot machines are attracting carloads of Maryland horse-racing fans.

'Get another chance'

Poor Jimmy's is Maryland's northernmost OTB site, and the closest to Delaware for legal betting on horse races. Some patrons said they believe the commission is trying to push Poor Jimmy's out to establish a more modern site near Delaware.

"It's not a bad place, for Cecil County," said Harry Patchell, a 52-year-old real estate agent and Poor Jimmy's regular. "Cecil County is not an upscale place."

Many of Poor Jimmy's patrons are local, older horse-racing fans unwilling to travel an hour or more to Laurel Park or Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

"I could go to Delaware, but I like it here," said Mary Smith, 64, who walks to Poor Jimmy's every day to play at least one race. "I think he [owner Jimmy Bomba] should get another chance."

Other race fans are frustrated that Jimmy's has remained relatively unchanged.

"They've been asking him for years to do something about it," said Steve Sikalis, 37, another regular. "He did something with the restaurant; he didn't do anything with this side."

'They keep coming back'

Bomba owns J.B.'s Steakhouse and rents the other half of his property to track operators for the betting parlor. The genteel Bomba, 75, plays host to the bettors, who look upon him as a pal. As he took a visitor in tow to show off his nonsmoking betting room, patrons shouted, "Hey, Jimmy!"

"I feel as though customers are satisfied," said Bomba, who opened the restaurant in 1969. "They keep coming back."

Poor Jimmy's employs 17 people, mostly betting cashiers, whose jobs are in jeopardy if the commission goes through with its plans. It said track operators can reapply for Poor Jimmy's license next month, or seek a new permit next year. But members said Bomba must have plans to improve the site.

If not, Maryland racing and Poor Jimmy's could be losers, say bettors like Bailey, a 55-year-old Elkton machinist who is willing to make the 20-minute drive to Delaware.

"Send more money to Delaware," Bailey said. "I'm not going to Baltimore."

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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