Racetrack sees salvation in slots

Aging Ocean Downs has trouble competing with the bigger purses offered at Delaware venues. Slot-machine supporters are hoping to change that.

August 28, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BERLIN - If there's a cloud of uncertainty hanging over this 55-year-old harness racing track, you couldn't tell it watching Corey Furey and her kids whooping it up along the rail as eight standardbred trotters and their drivers thundered past the grandstand.

Ten-year-old Alanna Furey has turned into a surefire handicapper. She bet $2 on the No. 3 horse because that's her soccer number. Her winnings: $2.40 and a chance to try again on the next race.

This is the third year in a row that the family, which vacations in nearby Ocean City, has traded a night on the boardwalk, miniature golf and other resort attractions for an evening of racing at Ocean Downs.

Furey, who lives in Fairfax, Va., says she has followed some of the debate about slot machines at Maryland tracks.

But she's not sure it matters all that much, at least to once-a-year bettors. She's just looking for an evening out at the beach. Alanna and brother Conor, 13, have a good time.

"I worried a little about gambling being a bad influence somehow, but there are always a lot of kids out here," Furey said. "There's never any swearing. It's all very kid-friendly."

On this night, she is joined by more than 2,000 others, many of them beachgoers and vacationers who help the aging track average about 1,800 patrons for its 40-day meet that concludes this evening.

Even in this unusually wet summer, the track presented a full slate of 11 races most nights.

When the weather is good, hundreds of fans abandon the hard seats and peeling paint of the grandstand and crowd the rail near the start-finish line as the 1,200-pound horses flash by in a blur of hooves and two-wheeled carts.

Enthusiastic crowds

High rollers sit in the refurbished track clubhouse, eating dinner and watching a bank of television monitors or windows on the track. According to documents filed with the Maryland Racing Commission, more than $2.5 million in bets was placed on live racing at Ocean Downs in 2002.

Drivers who could be racing just up the road in Delaware for larger purses say Ocean Downs has a special appeal because the crowds are enthusiastic and close - close enough to hear the drivers shouting to their horses, close enough for drivers to hear the crowd's cheers as they race by at speeds of 35 to 40 mph.

Ray "Shorty" Robinson Jr., 34, a former full-time driver, now limits himself to the 40 nights of racing here. By day, he's a branch manager at the local Calvin B. Taylor Bank.

"The best part of Ocean Downs is the fans themselves," Robinson says. "You've got them right there screaming and cheering. ... Don't get me wrong, slots would help. But it all means nothing without the people."

Losing out to Delaware

Most who work here say the larger purses in Delaware made possible by slot-machine profits are gradually draining Ocean Downs of top animals and drivers.

Some, like Richard Still, the leading driver in this year's meet, have mixed emotions. They like the laid-back atmosphere at the carefully manicured half-mile track, but they want more money.

"I've spent the last three summers here, but you have to move around a lot to different tracks to make a living," Still says. "If we could get slots, I could just stay here. Obviously, all the horsemen are for slots."

William Rickman Jr., a Montgomery County developer who bought Ocean Downs nearly four years ago, has waged a dogged campaign for state approval of slots at the track, which opened its doors in 1949. But with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch unable to reach an accord, few have hope for a quick resolution.

Like other Maryland horsemen, Rickman argues that the industry cannot survive without legalized gambling to compete with similar operations in surrounding states, including Delaware Park, Rickman's own slots emporium near Wilmington. According to documents filed with the racing commission, Ocean Downs reported a net loss of $605,000 last year on revenues of $6.5 million, including business at an off-track-betting parlor in Cambridge and year-round simulcast betting at Ocean Downs.

In addition to lobbying state lawmakers in Annapolis, Rickman has paid for telephone opinion surveys and met with local political leaders and civic and business groups. He mailed a color brochure to 15,000 Worcester County residents, urging them to pressure their legislators to support slots at Ocean Downs.

Maintaining traditions

A month ago, the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, which includes many slots opponents, was invited to the track for a presentation by Rickman.

Tim Burkhead, who drives the 1989 Cadillac that is the track's starter car, agrees with Rickman about the merits of slots.

But Burkhead, 43, says what he most cares about is keeping the track and its traditions going.

"Some of us have been here since our parents were racing," Burkhead says. "The first time I ever came out here and stood looking through the rail at those gigantic horses, I made up my mind I would get into this someday. I can't think of what else I'd do."

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