Promised Pimlico changes too slow out of the gate?

De Francis says $10 million invested

critics see few signs

May 24, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, Joseph A. De Francis unveiled sweeping plans to overhaul Pimlico Race Course and equip it with the amenities fans have come to expect at modern sports venues.

But the thousands who swarmed to the aging track last week for the 126th running of the Preakness Stakes saw little evidence of change.

They might have noticed new siding on some of the barns, and a sort of faux-wrought iron where chain-link fences topped with barbed wire once stood. But the park-like entry plaza, the glitzy clubhouse with food court and the "interactive fan education center" exist only on paper - while millions of dollars of state bond money to pay for improvements remains unclaimed.

Preakness Day 2001 was unquestionably a success, with a record crowd and record handle and no major glitches to mar the pageantry. The lack of visible progress on the promised rehabilitation of Pimlico, however, is one of many signs that Maryland racing is in big trouble.

The long-suffering industry - surrounded by competition that uses slot-machine profits to draw the best horses, beset with declining profits and all but paralyzed by infighting - is facing perhaps its deepest crisis yet.

"We're in a very bad cycle," said John B. Franzone, chairman of the state racing commission. "Worst I've seen."

Three years ago, a power outage on Preakness Day humiliated Maryland racing and highlighted Pimlico's dilapidation. Now, De Francis, president of the company that operates the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks, says that $10 million worth of groundwork has been laid for imminent, more visible improvements.

"It is extremely frustrating - extremely frustrating - for me and for everyone involved in this process to have put as much work as we've put into this program and to be at a stage now where everyone is saying ... `Gee, we thought we'd see more by now,'" De Francis said.

He says his company will be ready by the end of this month to push ahead with renovation plans.

His critics say they'll believe him when they see work begin.

Things are so bad that Maryland racing is enduring a dressing down from the very lawmakers who cite the $1 billion-a-year industry's crucial role in the state's heritage and economy.

After the state legislature decided this year to end a $10 million subsidy for racing purses, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. described the act with two words: "tough love."

At the time, legislators said their decision stemmed from frustration over the industry's failure to move ahead on plans to expand off-track betting facilities and launch telephone wagering, and by the thoroughbred and harness factions' inability to agree on a long-term plan for handling simulcast signals and splitting up profits.

To that list, Taylor adds another issue: Track owners have not taken advantage of a state-sanctioned bond program designed to provide more than $40 million to help pay for improvements at Pimlico and other Maryland racetracks.

"This is a program that the industry asked us for, and we gave it to them," Taylor said. "It's very frustrating to know that we in the state continue to bend over backward to try to help an industry that isn't helping itself."

Another key lawmaker, House Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, said she was surprised that De Francis has not yet applied for money through the bond program.

"We would have certainly thought that by this time something concrete would have happened," she said.

Many in the industry are equally mystified.

"There are a lot of people waiting and asking questions as to why it hasn't happened," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "We really don't know."

Improved facilities, while not a guarantee of future industry health, are one way the sport can help itself, many in racing say. Look what happened when the Orioles moved to Camden Yards, says industry players.

"In today's marketplace, you can't expect new fans to come to facilities that are not attractive, not appealing and not the kind of place you want to spend the day," said Alan M. Foreman, a lawyer for the state's horsemen's association.

That's why, they say, the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel Park, must move ahead to revamp the facilities as entertainment destinations for casual fans.

And that, De Francis says, is just what is going to happen.

He says his many critics are mistaken in saying little progress has been made in rehabbing Pimlico and Laurel Park. He says the Jockey Club has spent more than $10 million on the two tracks since 1999 on "infrastructure" that must precede more visible improvements.

"The money's out the door, and it's going into doing all this groundwork that needs to be done to lay the foundation for the other improvements that are going to be pretty and striking and dramatic. And when people walk into the facility, they're going to `ooh' and `ahh.' ... But we're not to that point yet."

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