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My summer at the Ocean (Downs)
Friday, August 06, 2010 - by Pete Lawrence

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I see that Ocean Downs, a small track near Ocean City, Maryland, is only racing four dates this year (four Saturdays in August, it appears), rather than its normal summer meet. Further, the dates will consist of only Maryland-bred races.

Chalk it up as one more track on its way out, simply racing out the state-bred events that are already paid for. Maryland's other harness track, Rosecroft Raceway, in the Washington, D.C. area, seems destined for similar oblivion without slot machines, which apparently it can't get approval for.

But hold that Ocean Downs obituary. The track will be back in 2011, remodeled and better than ever (it's the remodeling that has the place nearly shuttered this year), says OD's general manager, Pete Szymanski.

I don't quite understand the situation, but Ocean Downs has received approval for the slot machines that Rosecroft lacks, and happy days are on the way, in the form of big potential revenue and big prospective purses.

"I would think from spring to fall we'll be very busy," Szymanski tells us, adding, "I anticipate $55,000 a day in purses, maybe $5,000 a race."

If those projections prove accurate, little Ocean Downs could be the next Dover Downs or Harrington Raceway, two formerly small-time harness tracks in neighboring Delaware that both got very healthy on slot machine "racino" revenue.

But Ocean Downs' future isn't what's on my mind. I'm here to share tales of my summer there, 1981, as its publicity director. I was also director of public relations and promotions, but much more important to the track's president and general manager, the late John Howard Burbage, I was also in charge of selling nightly race sponsorships to local merchants.

John Howard, as he was widely known -- and he was widely known, as both mayor of Berlin, Md., where Ocean Downs is located, and also as owner of a men's haberdashery in town called, as I recall, the Style Guide -- cared little for national or local publicity for his track, except as it related to my selling the inexpensive trophies he bought in bulk, somewhere or other, to the sponsors.

I also had to explain why each trophy had the figure of a bowler on the top, and why none was ever engraved.

But let's take a step back to the the late winter and spring of 1981 for a moment. I was coming off a stint as assistant PR director at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Park. There were three of us holding that title, only two positions open for the meet, and I got squeezed out. But then I received a tip that Ocean Downs need a publicist, and I sent over a resume.

I did some basic research and discovered OD averaged something like 1,000 and $80,000 in nightly attendance and handle, respectively, in 1980. That was understandable, nearby Ocean City had a population of less than 10,000.

Anyway, I got the job, signing on for the handsome salary of $250 a week (or maybe $225?), and a visit to Ocean City revealed something I wasn't expecting -- high-rise condos, apartments, hotels and motels, stretching up and down the beach for miles! Then I found out that Ocean City's summer population was in the neighborhood of 200,000-plus.

(Pete Szymanski's rosy projections make sense in that light, don't they?)

Back to my office, I learned I had no promotions budget, what little advertising money I had at my disposal was already committed to a daily ad in the inland Salisbury Daily Times, which left nothing for me to spend with the giveaway beach newspapers that every tourist in town reads to get ideas on what to do at night.

I also found out I had no assistant, no secretary, no postage meter, no photocopying machine, and could only get dinner in the grandstand or clubhouse if I paid for it. Same for a parking space, if I wanted one.

The racing operation was, ummm, rustic. The in-house TV system was black-and-white, and showed no previous nights' replays. We published no charts. Our purses were nearly all less than $1,000, except a top pace and trot for somewhere around $1,300. John Howard saved money by selling the next night's programs right off his table in the clubhouse, which allowed him to send the guy or girl who sold programs and tip sheets early in the evening home by 9 p.m. or so.

We had a very talented staff, however, that included veteran race secretary and announcer Billy Perkins, assistant race secretary and clerk Ramona Hubbard, paddock judge and stall man Rick Bonekemper, program director Charlotte and presiding judge Eric, whose last names I've unfortunately forgotten. It was a top-notch crew for such a two-by-nothing place.

I was also the track handicapper, and the morning line guy. I received the proof pages and had to return them, with all the assigned odds and my selections, in less than 30 minutes. I picked about 33 percent winners on top, and my favorite nearly always turned out to be the public favorite. Not bad.

A small track like that is a good place for a young guy like me (25 at the time) to make beginner's mistakes. I wrote for the trade weeklies (Harness Horse and Horseman & Fair World) on Mondays, which should've been my lone day off, wrote many releases for the Daily Times and weekly features for the beach papers.

I could fill this space several times over with Ocean Downs stories, like the time our lights went out on the lower turn, and we just kept racing with no lights on the lower turn. (There were humorous details.) And the "Super Saturday Night" Billy Perkins pulled off at the end of the meet is a good tale, as well.

But we'll revisit Ocean Downs at some future date. Now, it's off to Meadowlands and Hambletonian Day. See you there.

Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

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