EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Chickie’s and Pete’s wants to be your place to watch horses and jockeys.
The township’s branch of the Philadelphia-based chain of restaurants and bars hopes to host an off-track betting, or OTB, location in what’s currently its Fireside Room, the owner says.
The New Jersey Racing Commission’s March meeting is set for Tuesday at the Egg Harbor Township municipal building. The agency will take public comments on a proposal to allow bets on horse races at Chickie’s and Pete’s.
A spokeswoman for the racing commission said the panel won’t vote on the idea until May.
The Racing Commission’s regular meeting starts 5 p.m. Tuesday in the township’s courtroom, but the public hearing on Chickie’s & Pete’s is set for 7 p.m. The applicants to run the betting operation include ACRA Turf Club LLC. ACRA owned the now-closed Atlantic City Race Course and operates Favorites at Vineland, another off-track betting spot.
Pete Ciarrocchi, co-owner of Chickie’s and Pete’s, has 14 stand-alone locations from Atlantic City to Allentown, Pennsylvania — plus some smaller, seasonal ones on the boardwalks in Ocean City and Wildwood.
Two of those year-round restaurants are in Tropicana Atlantic City and Parx Casino in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem. Ciarrocchi said the company has experience selling food and drinks in gambling spots.
And that’s all Chickie’s and Pete’s will be doing in Egg Harbor Township, the owner said. The deal calls for the restaurant to rent space to the OTB operation, and to serve its normal menu of food and drinks to any customers who are interested.
“So instead of us going to operate in an OTB, the idea is to bring the OTB to an existing restaurant,” he said. “It just adds a different combination to gambling, of good food and good drink. Maybe you’re sitting at a table eating lunch or dinner, and you say, ‘Let me go put $2 on a race.’”
Horse racing has lots of history not far from Chickie’s and Pete’s on the Black Horse Pike just west of English Creek Avenue. Atlantic City Race Course opened in 1946 and used to draw huge crowds a few miles farther west on the pike. But by late last century, the live track was down to just a handful of racing days each year.
That kept an off-track betting, or simulcasting, operation in business at the track all year — but used just a tiny fraction of ACRC’s 250-plus acres. In early 2015, the track shut down entirely.
Atlantic City also used to have simulcasting rooms in at least five casinos, but Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa now has the only one left. State Division of Gaming Enforcement figures show the best month by far for casino horse-race betting is May, when two of racing’s signature Triple Crown events — the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — draw public attention and major TV coverage to the sport.
“I think it’s really interesting and it could give life to something that’s sort of dwindling,” Ciarocchi said.
On days of high-profile races, which also include the Belmont Stakes and the Breeder’s Cup, “They might say, ‘Let’s go meet at Chickie’s and Pete’s and put a couple dollars on a horse.’”
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said recently he had been hearing the idea for several years. He predicts it will be a winner.
If so, Ciarrocchi expects competitors to try to chase the leader.
“If the experiment works, I’m sure other restaurants across the country could see this as an opportunity,” he said. “And that might work to keep racing alive.”