In a dramatic and costly turnabout, the Maryland Jockey Club has decided to spend more than $1 million transforming the Poor Jimmy's off-track betting parlor in Cecil County into a "showplace" for future OTBs in the state.
Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, told the Maryland Racing Commission at its monthly meeting yesterday at Laurel Park that "we're poised on the brink of finally creating a facility everybody involved in Maryland racing will be very, very proud of."
To commissioners fed up with years of broken promises over improvements at Poor Jimmy's, "finally" was the operative word. They challenged De Francis to fulfill his commitments this time, even threatening fines if he fell behind schedule.
"We've revisited this issue so many times," said John B. Franzone, commission chairman.
Added commissioner Terry H. Saxon: "It's almost a credibility problem."
De Francis said this latest delay in briefing commissioners about Poor Jimmy's was his fault. Because of a "strategic decision I made," he said, plans changed from a $250,000 "paint and powder fix-up" to at least a $1 million renovation project with a new name.
Poor Jimmy's, a restaurant and OTB on U.S. Route 40 in North East, will become the Northeast Racing and Sports Club. It will include a first-class restaurant, lounge with music on weekends, sports bar and upscale areas (smoking and non-smoking) for betting on harness and thorough bred races, De Francis said.
Future OTBs in Maryland will be named in similar fashion depending on their location, he said. An OTB in downtown Baltimore could be the Inner Harbor Racing and Sports Club or the Downtown Racing and Sports Club.
De Francis said he'd like to upgrade the state's OTB network, much maligned for inferior facilities, with at least four new OTBs in populous areas: two near Washington and two in or near Baltimore.
That expansion will be possible, he said, now that the Maryland Jockey Club and state's thoroughbred breeders and horsemen signed an agreement yesterday splitting betting revenue with the management, breeders and horsemen at Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County. Of every dollar bet at Rosecroft, Pimlico, Laurel Park or a Maryland OTB, the thoroughbred side will receive 80 percent and the Rosecroft side 20 percent.
More than two years in negotiations, the revenue-sharing deal is apparently the first of its kind in the country between the often-disparate harness and thoroughbred segments.
"This is the most dramatic change in the structure of Maryland racing almost in history," De Francis said. The agreement will enable the two sides to work together on marketing, promoting, distributing and developing horse racing in Maryland. The first major thrust will target the off-track betting system.
As De Francis came under fire from commissioners for past delays at Poor Jimmy's, Tom Chuckas, general manager at Rosecroft, stood up and said: "I know this is going to sound unusual, but I support Mr. De Francis."
Chuckas urged the commissioners to take the harness and thoroughbred sides at their word that they would complete the renovations as quickly as possible.
"It's the beginning of a new era and new trend of working together," Chuckas said.
De Francis said that Poor Jimmy's would be closed for construction no longer than 90 days after issuance of required permits. The Northeast Racing and Sports Club would then open July 1, he said.