As a teenager in Ireland, Jim McDonnell put five shillings down on a pair of race horses he liked because their names were similar.
The horses crossed the finish line in order, ahead of the rest of the pack, and McDonnell walked away with 10 pounds in his pocket.
“Oh, I had a great time that night,” he said in his thick Irish accent.
More than 50 years later, betting on horses is still one of McDonnell’s favorite pastimes. On most days, he leaves his home in Thurmont and finds his way to Long Shot’s, the off-track betting parlor inside the Clarion Inn hotel on Holiday Drive in Frederick.
Once there, with his Daily Racing Program in hand, he can survey 88 television screens and place bets on races around the world.
McDonnell, 70, used to have to drive more than 40 miles to Charles Town, West Virginia, to bet on horses. But when Long Shot’s opened in August of 2019, it provided a welcome alternative.
“You don’t have to drive a very long distance,” said McDonnell, who can make the trip to Long Shot’s in roughly half the time it takes him to get to Charles Town.
Still, to this day, legalized sports betting in Maryland requires four legs and hooves, as off-track wagers on horses are the only ones permitted.
If McDonnell wanted to place a bet on, say, his Las Vegas Raiders or Notre Dame Fighting Irish or favorite English soccer club, Tottenham Hotspur F.C., he’d have to make the longer trek to Charles Town in West Virginia or another neighboring state that permits it, like Pennsylvania or Delaware.
But that soon could be changing if Question 2 on Maryland ballots passes during the upcoming election.
If it does pass, Maryland would join 14 states across the country that have already legalized sports betting, paving the way for legislation to be passed in the General Assembly in Annapolis and licenses to be awarded by the State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission. In doing so, it could potentially raise millions for the state to put toward its education budget for public schools (kindergarten through 12th grade).
“We need it,” McDonnell said. “It’s about keeping the money in the state of Maryland.”
It’s presently unclear how much can be raised and when and to whom the money will be dispersed if sports betting is legalized in the state. It’s also uncertain what type of sports betting will be offered.
Yet-to-be-drafted legislation would need to be passed by the General Assembly that will govern how bettors can gamble (online, in person or both), where they can gamble (Will licenses be limited to casinos and race tracks?) and what sports they can gamble on (Will they be able to bet on college sports?).
The process could take years to unfold.
It’s still uncertain if Question 2 will even pass. The Maryland State Education Association, the leading teachers union in the state, voiced its support with a majority vote at last weekend’s virtual convention. But, a Goucher College poll released in February showed that 49 percent of Maryland residents are opposed to legalizing sports betting, while 45 percent support it.
“The question is where do you want your tax revenue to go?” said Josepha Babenbrier, a dealer and teller at Long Shot’s. “We’d love to keep it in the state. That’s a big deal. The state needs money. We need it to fund education. It’s important.”
Worth the gamble
Having delivered 400 foals, Randy Cohen’s life has centered around horse racing.
But when he decided to open Long Shot’s, he had a bigger vision in mind.
“Betting on sports is fun. It’s a form of entertainment. People do it for enjoyment. What is wrong with that?” Cohen, a Frederick native, said.
If and when Maryland starts handing out licenses for sports books, Cohen hopes he’d be in line for one with Long Shot’s.
“We’ll do it right. I promise you that,” he said.
Cohen estimates anywhere from a half-billion to billion dollars leaves the state every year because sports betting is illegal in Maryland. State residents flock to neighboring states to place their bets and get their fix.
“Why should our tax dollars end up in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and Virginia when all that money is already right here?” he said. “It’s that simple.”
According to a study commissioned by the National Council on Problem Gaming, 78 percent of Maryland residents gambled in some form or fashion in the past year, either legally or otherwise, and 22 percent placed a sports bet.
That puts Maryland right in line with the rest of the country, where 70 percent of the population took part in some form of gambling and 20 percent bet on sports, according to the NCPG.
Most gamblers understood the risks associated with their activity and took part responsibly, the study reported.
“In society, we are always going to have extremes, no matter what,” Cohen said. “You are going to have compulsive shoppers. There’s nothing we can do about a compulsive personality. In the event a person does have a problem with gambling, there is a help line. The state of Maryland does have a compulsive gambling helpline.”
With the potential to raise millions of dollars for education in the state, Cohen feels that passing Question 2 on the ballot should be a no-brainer.
“A huge amount of kids will get opportunities they never could have imagined before,” he said. “That is fantastic.”
‘A fake promise’
For more than a decade, Stan Mordensky has been listening to how gambling revenues were going to help revitalize Maryland schools, and he’s still waiting for it to happen.
“It’s always been a fake promise. I don’t know how this will be any different,” Mordensky, a retired teacher who lives in Ijamsville, said.
In 2008, the Maryland General Assembly voted to legalize gambling in the state under the premise that a portion of the revenue generated would support education. Casinos with slot machines opened in 2010, and table games were added in 2012, after a close vote.
However, the state reconfigured its budget. The gambling money meant to supplement existing funds for education merely replaced them, as money already earmarked for education was redirected for other purposes to help balance the budget.
The Maryland State Education Association said that $1.9 billion had been redirected from public schools since 2009.
That led to a lockbox amendment being passed in 2018 that required all of the state’s gambling money be to used to support public schools.
In 2019, Maryland casinos put $542 million, an all-time high, into the education trust fund, or that lockbox, according to the state lottery and gaming agency’s annual report. That is an increase of $46 million from the previous year.
But it’s unclear how revenues generated from sports betting will factor into the equation if Question 2 passes.
“Until we see how the legislation is written should this question pass, we cannot be certain that the money would be additional funding for school systems or how that funding will be allocated,” Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban said.
Mordensky, 72, who will buy lottery tickets when the jackpot exceeds $100 million, remains skeptical.
Among other things, he is worried that the legalization of sports betting will cause gambling to proliferate in ways that will be harmful to individuals and families.
“If a wage owner brings home $1,000 a week, it’s highly likely that every penny of that is needed,” Mordensky said. “If they go out and gamble and lose $200, where is the money going to come from, if every penny is needed?”
Millions at stake
To be sure, the future of public education in Maryland isn’t what brings betters like McDonnell and Leriath Chang to Long Shot’s on a regular basis.
They have other interests in mind. But every dollar they wager, perhaps on an NFL or Major League Baseball game, could help the cause.
According to a state analysis, Maryland could generate as much as $18 million for education in the next fiscal year if sports gambling was permitted online, as well as at casinos and race tracks.
Chang used to drive an hour from his Germantown home to Charles Town to place bets before Long Shot’s offered a more convenient option.
“Maryland is losing revenue. All of that [sports-betting] money is going to neighboring states,” he said. “We can use that revenue here in the county and the state.”