The owners of Laurel and Pimlico race courses are considering plans to shut down the Bowie Training Center and possibly sell off the land for development purposes.
The move would be an effort to cut operating costs, track owner Joe De Francis said recently.
Audits submitted recently to the Maryland Racing Commission showed that Laurel and Pimlico, the state's two major thoroughbred tracks, lost $849,058 in 1990.
There are stables at Bowie for nearly 1,000 thoroughbreds. But there is increasing evidence that the state's racehorse population is shrinking. Track officials say there are as few as 600 horses stabled at Bowie during non-peak periods.
To close the training center will require a change in state law. And that means a tough political fight, said state Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George's, who represents the Bowie constituency. He said he will do everything he can to keep the area as "green space."
"I'm sure the mayor of Bowie and the City Council will oppose closing down the track, too," Green said. "The last thing we need is more development. This sounds like another Bowie Boondoggle to me."
Green originally spearheaded legislation to keep Bowie Race Course functioning as a horse training center after a group headed by Joe De Francis' late father, Frank De Francis, bought the tracks during the 1980s and consolidated racing operations at Laurel and Pimlico. Bowie was closed for racing purposes in 1985.
Joe De Francis said that no final decision has been made to shut down the Bowie facility. He acknowledged that he is undertaking a comprehensive study to see if the state's racing program can afford to maintain three major thoroughbred operations. Unlike Laurel and Pimlico, there is no live or intertrack betting at Bowie, and the track generates no income.
According to the annual audit submitted to the racing commission, it costs Laurel and Pimlico more than $2 million a year to maintain Bowie as a training site. The tracks also pick up a $600,000 annual shipping tab to have the horses taken by van from Bowie to race at the other two tracks.
Timothy Capps, recently hired as vice president of racing operations at Laurel and Pimlico, said that no final decision will be made to close Bowie for at least three months or "until after the Preakness."
Capps said that track officials would like to transfer the Bowie operation to 57 acres adjacent to the Laurel stabling area. He said John Schapiro, former owner of Laurel, had already carved out the outline of a training track on that property, and that Laurel has an option to buy some adjoining acreage.
"We would build a training track as well as barns with 600 to 700 stalls, depending on the number of stalls that we find out we need," Capps said, adding that there is also room to build more barns on the current Laurel backstretch.
From preliminary studies, he said, the tracks need a combined total of about 2,600 stalls. "During the peak season in June and July, we have about 2,500 horses stabled on the grounds" at Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico, Capps said.
Another part of the plan would be to tear down the wooden barns directly behind the grandstand at Pimlico and build new ones adjacent to the concrete block barns that face the grandstand from across the track.
Capps estimated that all of this would cost $8 million and would be accomplished in stages, taking from two to three years to complete.
He said he thinks annual operating costs will be cut in half by transferring the Bowie operation to the new site at Laurel. It would be especially beneficial, he said, if the tracks institute a new morning workout program that is also under consideration.
"This is purely an economic move," Capps said.
He acknowledged that the possible sale of the Bowie property could ignite a political battle, but the money raised would help bolster the rest of the state's thoroughbred operation.
"We have no idea what it could be sold for," Capps said. "There are about 260 acres, and I would imagine it's a prime candidate for development."
Horsemen stabled at Bowie had various responses to the proposed plans.
Dale Capuano, who stables about 50 horses year-round at Bowie and is currently the leading trainer at Pimlico, said: "It doesn't sound too bad to me, as long as the number of stalls we have now remains the same. I've been at Bowie my whole life and I hate to see it go. But you have got to change with times."
Other horsemen were less positive.
"What they should really do is tear down all three tracks and build a superfacility like the Meadowlands" in New Jersey, said trainer Jerry Robb. "The irony is that of all three tracks, Bowie has the best racing surface and the best barn area. But this news isn't exactly shocking. We all sort of knew it was coming."
Alan Foreman, counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said he had "no idea" how the plan would be received by the organization's entire membership. "I do know, though, that the tracks have been counting heads lately, and keeping records. They know exactly how many horses are on the grounds. We don't have the vast number of horses that we used to. Because of the Tax Reform Act in 1986, owners are leaving the game." The act eliminated certain tax advantages for owning thoroughbreds.
Foreman said that he himself had no position on the proposed shutdown. "But from a business point of view," he said, "the tracks are keeping Bowie open at a substantial cost, and there are a lot of empty stalls."