Pimlico opens as De Francis hopes for bond aid

Old track seeking new fans needs larger takeout, fixup

Horse Racing

March 30, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

For her husband's 43rd birth day, Kay Jacobson suggested going to the horse track.

After Ron Jacobson blew out the candles on his birthday cake -- 42 of them actually, he had to blow a second time for the 43rd -- the Jacobson family navigated the short drive from their Pikesville home to Pimlico. With their two children, Jessica, 12, and Ben, 8, they joined nearly 5,000 others yesterday as Pimlico, the old track in the city, opened its spring meet.

"It's close. It's convenient. It's pretty," said Mrs. Jacobson, 47, a former registered nurse. "It kind of takes you away from the city even though it's in the city."

The Jacobsons are not regular track-goers. Asked whether they ever went to the races at Laurel Park, Pimlico's sister track south of Baltimore, young Jessica asked: "They race at Laurel?"

Yes, Jessica, they race at Laurel -- most of the year, actually.

Thoroughbreds race at Pimlico for only 7 1/2 weeks, but during that time, some of the world's fastest horses will venture into Maryland for two of America's great races: the Pimlico Special (May 13), which features older horses, and the Preakness (May 20), which showcases 3-year-olds in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

"This is just a special place," said Joe De Francis, president and chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club. "There are few places in any sport with the history and tradition of this racetrack."

De Francis is the major backer of a bill in the state legislature that would raise the takeout (the amount withheld from every wager) on Pimlico and Laurel Park races. That would finance the sale of bonds for renovating Pimlico, Laurel Park and the state's major harness track, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.

De Francis said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the bill's passage. The increase in takeout, plus Maryland Jockey Club money, would combine for about $60 million in improvements to the state's two major thoroughbred tracks and its off-track betting network.

"We could turn Pimlico into a home for the Preakness everybody could be proud of," De Francis said.

At the moment, Pimlico is a downtrodden, 130-year-old track some racing fans and writers around the country have said is unworthy of the Preakness. One major criticism is the barns, especially the stakes barn that houses the Preakness horses.

De Francis' plan calls for new, improved barns on the far side of the track, including an attractive stakes barn, as well as an outdoor paddock with terraces for viewing and more simulcast theaters.

Yesterday, workers concentrated on meeting city requirements for fire and safety codes. Their most evident work involved enclosing stairwells and improving fire-exit routes.

As for the racing, it was business as usual as an out-of-state horse, Lucky Again, won the featured event, the $50,000 Sham Say Stakes. Stabled at Belmont Park in New York, Lucky Again and his New York jockey, Jose Santos, dominated the nine-horse field with a 1 1/2-length victory.

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