- Published: Saturday, 30 January 2016 12:37
Exposing horse racing to more and more people is a key element in the Stronach Group’s plans for building Maryland horseracing into a premier sport in the country and a strong performer within the state.
A month ago, the Maryland Jockey Club released the news that its Export Signal’s handle figures in 2015 were up nearly 20 percent over the year before. Now, it is trying to expand the number of people who have access to those signals in the state and build a bigger fan base through the re-establishment and expansion of off track betting sites, or OTBs.
“The primary reason we’re doing this,” says MJC vice president and general manager Sal Sinatra, “is to build convenience for our customers and exposure to racing throughout the state.”
The MJC dipped its toe back in the OTB waters last May when it opened its first new site at Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino leading up to Preakness week. That project has outperformed projections to this point, contributing $7 million in handle to last year’s coffers in about six months of operation.
Sinatra said in late January the popularity of the Horseshoe’s OTB continues and is now expected to produce $12 million in its first year, again beating pre-opening projections by at least $2 million. Now, OTB expansion is moving forward.
On Thursday, Feb. 11, at 6 p.m., the Maryland Racing Commission will hold an open hearing in the Mosner Miller building at the Timonium Fairgrounds (pictured) to listen to the MJC’s proposal for an OTB at the racetrack there. The meeting is designed to inform the MRC, area residents and legislators about the OTB project and give interested parties an opportunity to ask questions and voice opinions about the proposed facility.
David Richardson, MTHA Executive Director has commented that the Timonium OTB “is projected to generate over $500,000 annually for the Thoroughbred Purse Account.”
Sinatra and Richardson, along with other industry leaders, had a meeting with several area legislators Jan. 29 to inform them of the plans.
“I think there has been some misunderstanding about what an OTB is,” Sinatra says. “There is concern [in the surrounding community] that it is going to be a casino, which it won’t be and never will be.”
Sinatra said he sees the Timonium OTB which would be located on the second floor of the grandstand, near the newly remodeled restaurant, High Tops Grandstand Grill, as a place those coming to the fairgrounds throughout the year for various other activities will be able to utilize.
“I can see a husband who accompanies his wife to a flower show taking a break and walking over to the OTB to watch a couple of races and then meeting his wife in the restaurant for lunch; or an owner or trainer who is at the horse sales and have other horses running at tracks around the country coming over to watch their horses running elsewhere,” Sinatra says. “It is just one more amenity for the property and helps our exposure” particularly with people who might not otherwise see a race.
MRC chairman John McDaniel says racing is like any business in a technical world.
“Those businesses want to reach out to the customers,” McDaniel says. “Racing is no exception. . . . OTBs present a tremendous opportunity to expand exposure to the sport.”
That said, McDaniel says the OTB has to be done right, with thorough communication with area residents and proper operating procedures.
“I believe the commission is supportive of OTBs, as long as the local community is supportive and they are well operated,” he says.
OTBs have a desolate history in Maryland, with only one of four that operated in the 2000s - The Riverboat on the Potomac, which is actually in Colonial Beach. VA – still open. Sinatra said that facility brings in about $7 million in revenue each year.
But officials see a number of reasons why an OTB network can and will be successful now although failing previously.
“The newer generations now all use computers,” MRC member and former chairman Bruce Quade says. “The last time this was tried, it was an older group who if they wanted to bet would go to the racetrack, not to an OTB to bet on a machine.
“Another thing is the Stronach Group is behind these efforts and they’re not going to let it fail. They give everything their best effort.”
Sinatra points to location and the strength of the chosen sites as reasons to be optimistic.
There is also a different operating agreement with the MJC, MTHA and the operator equally splitting the revenues. The new OTBs will not be placed in struggling businesses to prop up their revenue streams and a much improved Maryland racing product should boost interest.
Sinatra said the MJC believes all of that will work together to support a network of perhaps six OTBs around the state. Five are already either open or being talked about.
Besides the Horseshoe Casino and Timonium, another OTB is being planned for Boonsboro, between Frederick and Hagerstown, for opening possibly in February, and a fourth is on the drawing board for Rocky Gap.
“The MGM National Harbor Casino is still a ways from opening,” Sinatra says of the facility being built along the Potomac River near the border with Virginia. “But at some point we’ll look at that, too, because it seems to work well at the Horseshoe in Baltimore.”