Is Pimlico-Laurel fix-up plan a gamble worth paying for?

On Horse Racing

June 20, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Jockey Club's proposed $60 million improvement plan, if put into effect, would bring desperately needed changes to Pimlico and Laurel Park and the way their employees treat you, the patron.

But that could cost you at the betting window. Are you willing to pay what Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, believes is your fair share?

And what do you think of the plan? Does it adequately address the needs of Pimlico, Laurel Park and the state's thoroughbred racing industry in general?

Let us know what you think, and we'll include a representative sample of your responses in a future article.

Send e-mail to tkeyser@erols.com or fax a letter to 410-857-7675 by midnight Wednesday. To streamline the process, please don't mail letters to The Sun. Include your name, town of residence and telephone number. Also let us know your connection to horse racing: casual bettor, professional gambler, racetrack employee, trainer, owner of horses, etc.

As you've probably read in recent editions of this newspaper, the five-year plan calls for refurbishing Pimlico and Laurel Park, upgrading the off-track betting network, increasing marketing and improving customer service.

De Francis says his company will contribute $32.5 million of the $60 million. The remaining $27.5 million would come from revenue bonds repaid mostly by a temporary hike in the "takeout" for certain wagers. (See chart for explanation of takeout.)

Whenever you bet in Maryland on races at Pimlico and Laurel Park, you would pay an additional 1.5 percent in the form of increased takeout to help finance the Maryland Jockey Club plan. Its focal point is transforming Pimlico into a showcase for the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

All barns behind the grandstand would be torn down. New barns and dorms for stable workers would be built on the other side of Pimlico, beyond the backstretch of the racing surface. Included would be a handsome 60-stall stakes barn with twin walking rings.

The claustrophobic indoor paddock would be replaced by an outdoor paddock with terraced viewing areas. A new primary entrance would be constructed on the Northern Parkway side of the track.

Also, the plan calls for a new dirt racing surface, extensive landscaping, brick and wrought-iron fences, hospitality and entertainment areas (including shops, stores and nighttime activities), a mall-like food court and extensive renovations inside and outside the clubhouse, grandstand and wooden bleachers.

At Laurel Park, the plan details new entrances, upgrades to the adjacent train station, new barns, improvements to the racing surface (dirt only), construction of "Maryland Million Park" next to the grandstand and extensive renovations inside and outside the track.

In addition, the plan promises "an unwavering commitment to customer service." It says De Francis will hire a "blue-chip senior executive" with a "very strong background in marketing and promotion, customer service and employee training."

The cost breakdown: $18.2 million for Pimlico, $16.8 million for Laurel Park, $5 million for OTB upgrades and expansion (at least three new OTBs) and $20 million for increased marketing and capital improvements.

De Francis says he decided on the 1.5 percent increase in takeout (which can be implemented only by state law), because "we stretched as far as we could stretch corporately, first. Then we had to find another source of money to fill in the missing piece."

He says he doesn't believe the taxpayers should -- or would want to -- pay for improvements to the tracks. So he says he decided to ask his customers to help by contributing more in takeout for wagers placed in Maryland on races at Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Those wagers represent about 30 percent of the Maryland Jockey Club in-state total. Bets on out-of-state races make up the other 70 percent. That takeout would not change.

De Francis says he believes the impact on bettors would be minimal. An exacta that now pays $100 would pay $98.20. A trifecta that pays $1,000 would pay $980.

The increase would remain in place until the revenue bonds are paid off. De Francis says he hopes that would happen within 10 years.

All clear for Colonial Downs

The agreement on a horsemen's contract in Virginia removes the final major obstacle to the fall thoroughbred meet at Colonial Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club's partner track between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Virginia thoroughbred horsemen and Colonial Downs management signed a three-year deal Wednesday providing for daily purses of $125,000 for the 25-day meet (3 p.m. Friday through Tuesday, Sept. 6 to Oct. 11). Purses last year were about $150,000 a day. Horsemen agreed to take less this year to help the track through its financial crisis.

Colonial Downs lost $5.3 million in 1998. The Maryland Jockey Club has taken over management of the track and its four off-track betting parlors in hopes of reversing the financial decline.

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