Better days ahead for Maryland racing

$60 million plan: Improving Laurel and Pimlico tracks should help draw more fans to sport.

June 23, 1999

PUMPING $60 million into Maryland's aging thoroughbred racing facilities at Laurel and Pimlico won't turn them into Taj Mahals. But it should make the tracks far more appealing to Marylanders who rarely think of spending a day at the races.

It is an expensive gamble that Joseph A. De Francis, principal owner of the tracks, is making. He intends to put up $32.5 million over five years; the rest would come from a temporary increase in the amount taken out of the betting pool before winners are paid.

That extra 1.5 percent in the "takeout" would underwrite revenue bonds worth $27.5 million. It is a user's fee on bettors, quite similar to the gasoline tax on drivers that underwrites bonds for road and transit projects. No general taxpayer revenues are involved in this plan.

What stimulated this renovation effort was Gov. Parris N. Glendening's determination to tie $10 million in state aid for racing purses to track improvements. This money is sorely needed to keep Maryland purses competitive with tracks in Delaware that rely on revenue from slot machines.

Legislative leaders and the governor should strongly endorse the track refurbishing proposals. Pimlico, in particular, needs an extensive updating to survive and thrive.

The track is the linchpin of surrounding Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods. Pimlico's spring meeting that concluded over the weekend proved a big success, with attendance and wagering up.

To remain competitive, however, the historic track must draw more newcomers to the "sport of kings" by providing comfortable surroundings, modern conveniences and high-quality horse racing.

Mr. De Francis' improvement plan promises much. With racing on the upswing around the country, the sport may be entering a growth period. That would be good news for Pimlico -- and for the city. It would make this $60 million gamble a sensible investment in Laurel and Pimlico.

Pimlico upgrades

The $18.2 million improvement plan for Pimlico Race Course would include:

New barns and dorms for stable workers; upscale stable complex for Preakness and stakes horses.

Outdoor paddock with terraced viewing areas.

Rebuilt dirt racing surface.

New entrance from Northern Parkway onto landscaped parking lot.

Hospitality and entertainment shops.

Upscale restaurant open year-round.

Mall-like food court.

Full renovation of clubhouse and grandstand areas.

Track-side corporate suites.

Separate area designed for catered and special events.

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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