The Maryland horse racing industry has hit full stride and Frederick County is jockeying to get in on the action.
County Councilman Tony Chmelik (R) introduced a bill Tuesday to allow off-track betting through a satellite simulcast in the county's limited industrial zone. Off-track betting facilities allow patrons to bet on horse races around the country being simulcast on monitors.
Though still far from the homestretch, the legislation marks the first step in what supporters hope will make Frederick a front-runner in a lucrative and rapidly growing industry.
The state's off-track betting facilities accounted for $40 million of the $625 million in horse racing revenue in 2017, according to Sal Sinatra, general manager of Maryland Jockey Club. As the industry continues to surge, Jockey Club is eyeing Frederick County to house what would be the eighth off-track betting site statewide, according to the Maryland Racing Commission website.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Sinatra highlighted the success of Frederick County's former off-track betting parlor the Cracked Claw. During the sport's heyday in the 1980s, the Urbana seafood restaurant was the most lucrative off-track betting site statewide, raking in about $20 million a year, Sinatra said.
The Jockey Club hopes to resurrect the long-shuttered business' success by adding a betting parlor to a Frederick County restaurant or sports bar, but first it wants the county's blessing.
Racetracks are already considered permitted uses in its general commercial, limited industrial and general industrial zones. The Cracked Claw opened its betting parlor under the logic that the same wagering activities that would be permitted at the tracks would also be allowed at a restaurant in one of those zones, according to a 1992 letter from Michael Thompson, the county's zoning administrator at the time. Chmelik shared a copy of the letter with The Frederick News-Post.
Chmelik's bill offers additional clarity by specifically authorizing off-track betting in the county's light industrial zones. Chmelik chose that zoning designation because industrial areas of the county often border commercial zones, thereby offering a buffer from residential areas, he said.
Chmelik is also considering striking the existing language permitting racetracks in general commercial and general industrial zones from the zoning code as part of his bill, though he planned to hold off on any changes until the public weighs in.
Ahead of the council's April public hearing, Chmelik was unsure whether the proposal would win over local residents or become a point of contention. He acknowledged the problems that accompany casinos and gambling, but stressed that off-track betting would not become a gateway to such activities in Frederick.
When Councilman Jerry Donald (D) asked the same question in a workshop about the bill, Sinatra responded with a definitive "no." He added that off-track betting sites including those in Hampstead and Boonsboro were an attraction for couples and friend groups, many of whom were drawn in from patronizing the adjacent restaurant or sports bar.
The club has no plans to open more than one betting site in Frederick — having multiple off-track betting locations in a concentrated area risks over-saturating the market and diminishes return on investment, Sinatra said. The club would also front the estimated $250,000 cost of the necessary restaurant renovations, furniture and technology such as LED TVs, betting corrals, and teller windows.
Frederick could bring in an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 in revenue in the first five years of opening an off-track betting site, according to club estimates. Revenue from the industry as a whole also supports horse farms, breeders and racers, including those in Frederick County, Sinatra said.
If the county approves the zoning change, it will take six months to finalize a specific location and secure the requisite approval from the Maryland Racing Commission, which includes another public hearing. Sinatra named the end of the year as the club's targeted opening date for a Frederick off-track betting site.