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Ocean Downs, under the gun

The casino at Ocean Downs is four months away from its planned opening date and it looks like the construction crews may need every bit of it.

They were hard at it this morning — laying brick in the front, putting large steel beams in place on the roof and doing other work inside the structure.

I took a spin out to the track Thursday morning to check in on the progress being made there. At first glance (especially for an untrained eye like mine) it’s hard to believe that what is going on there is a renovation, rather than construction from the ground up.

In addition to getting a look at what will be the state’s second casino to open its doors, it was a chance to spend a little time outside after yesterday’s monsoon got the MACo conference off to a soggy start. (Quick side note – the first announcement I heard over the PA system in the conference center was something like “Attention, the two northern-most rows in the parking lot are under about a foot of water… just in case you want to move your cars.” They weren’t lying. Luckily, my car was a few rows up river, and in only about 6 inches of water.)

The harness track, one of only two left in the state, is tucked back away from the intersection of Routes 50 and 589, a few miles outside of Ocean City.

The building has been stripped down to a steel skeleton, and even some of that structural steel had to be replaced. Workers have filled in the gaps between most of the beams, framing out internal walls. The building is about half-covered with a corrugated metal roof. And concrete walls are in place along much of the front of the building. Workers were laying brick there this morning.

The track’s owner originally had planned for a Memorial Day weekend grand opening, but the steel and asbestos issues pushed the date back by about seven months.

Casino General Manager Joe Cavilla said it was only after wood and asphalt were stripped out of the 60-year-old structure — which used to be the track’s grandstand — as part of the renovation did the casino operators realize the severity of the steel issue.

“While we had planned to make some repairs, Mr. Rickman (track owner Bill Rickman) decided that it was in the long-term best interest of the property to replace the steel beams,” Cavilla wrote in an email.

Even when the casino opens, Ocean Downs will face significant competition from horse tracks and casinos with slot machines and table games to the north, in Delaware. And it looks like casino operators there have already taken notice.

On Route 50, at the intersection where one turns to go to Ocean Downs, there’s a prominently placed billboard that reads “Ante up! Table games are here.” Those words are followed by directions that would take drivers past Maryland’s lone Eastern Shore casino and up into Delaware to Harrington Raceway and Casino.