Not So Happy Thanksgiving as North East OTB is Closing

November 27, 2013 | Gary Quill

Not long after the 2013 Breeders’ Cup dust had settled at Santa Anita, over 2,700 miles away in North East, MD a bomb was dropped on the folks at North East Racing & Sports Club (NERSC), originally known as Poor Jimmy’s on Rt. 40 but more commonly referred to as an Off-Tracking Betting facility (OTB).

On Wednesday morning (Nov. 6th) the Human Resources “suits” from the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) descended on Maryland’s only remaining OTB site. The visit was not to discuss strategy for the coming year, but to inform on-site General Manager Deborah Pro-Marshall that MJC would cease operations at NERSC effective close of business November 30, 2013.

Why? In a letter to NERSC employees, Tom Chuckas, MJC President and COO explained, “Declining wagering revenues and increased operating costs have created an unfortunate situation where NERSC can no longer be sustained financially.

That one sentence not only speaks the truth but could be written concerning every OTB across North America, if not worldwide. Blame technology. Better yet, blame Al Gore! After all HE DID invent the internet, didn’t he?! Wagering via many of the horse racing websites from the comfort of your own home or office has replaced having to drive to the local track or OTB.

NERSC interior

The first OTB (outside of Nevada) surfaced in New York City in 1970. In Maryland the first of six opened in 1995. In 2000, Poor Jimmy’s closed for renovations and reopened as NERSC . What was once thought of as a savior to make wagering on horse races more readily available to those residing too far from a race track, is now a dinosaur. Much like 8-track tapes, Polariod cameras, and VHS tapes, the greatest thing since sliced bread for horseplayers is now toast!

Even though closing an OTB facility makes good business sense, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for the dedicated NERSC employees and their loyal customers. The latter fits two (2) demographics… the first are retired gents who prefer wagering while socializing with friends instead of golfing, playing cards or “shooting the breeze” at the local watering hole or fast food establishment. The second are horseplayers who don’t know their way around a computer keyboard, so they rely on making their short-term investments via Pari-Mutuel Clerk window.

In both cases, they are all characters who jokingly harass one another about a bad selection (“I wouldn’t bet that horse with your money”) but conversely will cheer and give “props” when a fellow capper picks a winner at long odds.

A quartet of Steve, “Navy”, Eddie and “Snap” are regulars who occupy the first row facing one of the banks of TV screens. One patron referred to NERSC as his “Man Cave”.

With all the bad TV shows on these days, including a plethora of the “reality” type, network executives should have visited NERSC. On any given day or night just roll the cameras.

Start with grand entrances. Every day or night everyone knew when George, a flamboyant gentleman who has an affinity for jewelry arrived, as they’d hear his loud yet simple, personal greeting of “Hey ____, how’s it going?” to the first NERSC staff member he’d see.

There’s Bobby, a retiree famous for the line “I haven’t hit a race all week”, was so notorious for playing 7-10 Exactas, that whenever and wherever that combo would come in, someone always shouted, “Where’s Bobby?! You have that?!

There are dozens more who will forever live in my memory, but the most loyal of all NERSC customers has to have been Matt. A dead-ringer for Zach Galifianakis’ Hangover character, Matt would certainly be the star of this reality show. Thoroughbred or harness, North or South American races, Matt did them all in rapid fire succession. Without a doubt the most boisterous of all NERSC cliental, his voice could be heard throughout the entire facility, often changing who he’d root for in mid-stretch and the post-race commentary was often priceless. For example, “5-1-2?! That’s my brother’s birthday…” to suggest if we’d play the birthdays of all our close friends and relatives, we’d be filthy rich.

NERSC is a Comedy Club without the cover or drink minimum. As one Pari-Mutuel clerk stated with a smile while shaking his head, “You just cannot make this stuff up.

NERSC Closing sign

Sadly, after all OTB’s disappear, many of the race tracks will follow. Attendance and on-track handle continues to decrease while online wagering increases.

BOLD PREDICTION: By 2024, I envision many tracks as antiseptic venues without on-track wagering. No horseplayers, no vendors. Just horses, jockeys, trainers, starting gate personnel, race caller and track photographer… that’s it! All race wagering and watching will be performed online. The only race days to welcome fan on-track attendance will be Breeders’ Cup and the Triple Crown race venues.

It certainly appears to be the track (pun intend) that the horse racing industry is on heading into the future. What do you think?

For the employees at North East and their loyal customers, this Thanksgiving the turkey probably won’t taste as good and the pumpkin pie may seem bitter, but if they are able to share it with family and friends, it will help ease the pain of losing more than just a job or place to socialize and wager on the ponies. Everyone is losing a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Click here on race day morning to see my selections for Laurel Park’s Thanksgiving Day card.