Overhaul planned for horse racing

$35 million proposal includes renovations, new betting parlors

Harness racing partnership

June 13, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The owner of Maryland's major thoroughbred racetracks will unveil a plan tomorrow to resuscitate the sport with a $35 million overhaul of the tracks, new off-track betting parlors and an innovative partnership with harness racing.

The plan is the result of stern orders this year by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and lawmakers. They made $10 million in aid to horse racing contingent on a blueprint by the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, to upgrade the oft-maligned facilities, their marketing and management.

Glendening, on a foreign trade mission, issued a written response calling the plan "a significant, positive step forward."

If approved by state leaders, the proposal could change the face of Maryland horse racing by 2002. Dilapidated barns would be demolished, threadbare clubhouses modernized and the grounds beautified at both tracks.

Pimlico's work is scheduled to cost $18 million; Laurel's, $16.8 million.

"We're going to effect a change in the entertainment experience," said Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Pimlico, the historic track in North Baltimore where 100,000 spectators watched the Preakness Stakes last month, will gain some of the amenities that fans have come to expect at stadiums and competing racetracks. They include a mall-like food court and an area designed for televised "simulcasts" of races.

The track's indoor paddock will be replaced with an outdoor one where fans can watch horses and jockeys from terraced viewing areas. A new area for corporate tents and portable skyboxes is intended to attract an upscale clientele.

The plan calls for enhancing Pimlico's setting through the purchase of homes along Rogers Avenue, possibly with city-ordered condemnation, and restricting barns to the track's backstretch. Buildings facing nearby streets will get a new look, creating an architectural focus for a part of the complex that is now an eyesore.

"What we're doing is making our back door our front door," said Robert De Pietro, executive vice president of the jockey club.

The structure of the clubhouse and grandstand will remain intact. The grandstand, which dates to the last century, will be repainted. "We can do a lot with these buildings without imploding them and starting over," De Francis said.

The clubhouse will be rehabilitated, starting with the aging electrical and plumbing systems. A power outage at last year's Preakness humiliated the track and state racing industry on its biggest day. That revived criticism of the tracks and suggestions that the Preakness be dropped from the Triple Crown.

Details of the financing are pending, but De Francis said the jockey club will pay the first $7.5 million. He hopes the rest could be financed by low-interest state bonds or development loans, to be repaid by a 1 percent or 1.5 percent temporary addition to the "takeout" deducted from wagers.

More for marketing

He is also promising to spend at least $9.7 million a year on marketing, up from $7.2 million spent in recent years, and to hire a heavy-hitting executive to attract and better serve customers.

Accompanying the plan is an agreement now being completed with the owners of Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Oxon Hill southeast of Washington. The deal, which would replace an unwieldy operating agreement in place since 1993, calls for the rivals to share most of their revenue from betting, admissions and other sources. Eighty percent would go to the thoroughbreds and 20 percent to the harness industry.

Years in the making, the arrangement would give each organization an incentive to help the other prosper, something that could result in new cooperation in everything from the location of off-track betting parlors to approval for twilight racing at Pimlico. The practice of one track's employees operating the other's tracks for parts of each day will end.

The revenue sharing will extend to off-track betting parlors, and the joint development of at least three more parlors somewhere in the "Baltimore-Washington region," De Francis said. The new facilities, unlike the four existing parlors built into bars and restaurants, will be dedicated to racing, he said.

He said he did not know where they would be located except one, already proposed for Elkton. The jockey club has long eyed the Interstate 83 corridor, near Hunt Valley, for an off-track wagering outlet.

De Francis proposes spending $5 million improving OTB parlors and opening new ones.

The reaction from people who have received advance briefings has been enthusiastic, yet tempered by concerns that De Francis won't follow through. In his 10 years at the head of the tracks, De Francis has insisted significant renovations were impossible without state money or permission to install slot machines.

De Francis' active support for Glendening's opponents in last year's primary and general elections created deep animosity between the two and emboldened legislative critics who demanded changes at the tracks.

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