In remaking of Pimlico, go back to starting gate

July 11, 1999|By John Steadman


Last week's column on the merits of replacing rather than upgrading Pimlico Race Course used a figure of $60 million. That is the overall cost of a plan that would also improve Laurel Park, the off-track-betting system and their marketing. Refurbishing Pimlico is projected to cost $18.2 million.

Right now, Pimlico Race Course needs to be saved from itself, or what president Joe De Francis wants to do to it. Maybe the governor, Parris N. Glendening, can introduce some basic common sense and point out a more plausible course of action.

Glendening holds the keys to the $10 million treasure chest soon to be made available to boost purses for horse owners and breeders. The governor wants certain assurances from De Francis before he makes the windfall available.

Perhaps Glendening can convince or even explain to De Francis why a proposed partial improvement plan at the Pimlico site is foolhardy. It's to cost $60 million. What needs to be done in the best interests of racing and Maryland is for the entire Pimlico plant to be taken down and a new facility erected.

That's the only way a sport struggling for support is going to gain attention and re-establish itself. A new facility, not a refurbished one, is what's needed to produce excitement and introduce momentum. To do otherwise will be regretted and lamented for untold years to come. Track president De Francis is suggesting that you, the betting public, contribute almost half of the cost by depriving yourself of another 1.5 percent increase in the takeout total. The racetrack bettor is about to get hit on the chin again.

If De Francis is deciding this without benefit of advisers, then he'd better send out for some help in a hurry. Pimlico needs to be rebuilt, not repaired or rehabilitated. A new Pimlico will draw attention, lift revenue, touch off a proliferation of interest and draw first-time visitors to the sport.

To do anything halfway at this stage of the game is to absolutely strangle, at a pivotal time, what could be a reawakening and the brightest of futures for Maryland racing. Merely improving the facility, even at a cost of $60 million, isn't going to work. A new Pimlico should be the goal. Nothing less.

Let's do for racing what has been done for major-league baseball and pro football in Baltimore. The money to create the twin Camden Yards playpens came from a special Maryland lottery. Racing deserves the same consideration.

The sport has contributed to the financial growth of Maryland for well over a century, far longer than what baseball and football have done. And doesn't it seem entirely reasonable to have one form of gambling, the legalized Maryland lottery, subsidize another form of betting, thoroughbred racing?

If it could be done for two sports, why not racing? Spending $60 million on Pimlico will dress it up, but it'll still be the same aging plant, a face lift to the contrary. To rebuild anew would mean the marketing that Glendening has stressed could be predicated on coming out to see the New Pimlico, not a version of the same, old venue.

Pimlico, for its own future and that of a neighborhood in decline, could also incorporate other features. Why not make it a multiple destination, incorporating a shopping mall, amusement/recreational park or an arena? It should be rebuilt with the idea of being used to serve more than 60 afternoons of racing.

Maryland racing is in competition with baseball and football, plus what's going on in Delaware and West Virginia pertinent to the demeaning slot machines at tracks. It needs to offer an updated clubhouse, an inviting grandstand and attractive concession booths. Why should racing patrons be treated as third-class citizens?

Leave the racing course as is, but tear the rest down and, as suggested here once before, start over from the ground up. Create a state-of-the-art track, with full amenities and comfortable seating throughout. Otherwise, Pimlico is going to become a dead issue, even if it tries to reinvent itself with $60 million worth of improvements.

If you're a member of the Maryland state legislature, you have to be annoyed with Pimlico's constant appeals for financial help. Doesn't it ever do anything on its own, to try to help itself? It does, however, without fail, remember to gather in the profits.

Tom Keyser, racing writer for The Sun, conducted an open forum in this sports section a week ago, inviting readers to contribute their opinions on how they felt about paying for the $60 million in proposed improvements by taxing the take. He received, for the most part, negative reaction. Senate President Mike Miller, out of touch with reality, showed what a grand sport he is by agreeing that the patrons of the track should pay for a portion of the upgrading.

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