New visions for Md. racing

Remedies: To many horsemen, prospects look greener in nearby states. The prescription might be `boutique meets' or a `supertrack.'

May 09, 2002|By Tom Keyser and Jon Morgan | Tom Keyser and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Creative minds across the country are bringing new ideas to the ancient sport of horse racing. They've bumped races to prime time, brought in rock stars to attract fans and found ways to take bets over phones, computers and TV sets.

The result is that racing attracted $14.5 billion in wagers and paid more than $1 billion in prizes last year to horse owners nationwide. But the record figures mask concerns that the sport is ill-equipped to sustain the progress.

The outlook is more worrisome in Maryland, where longtime fans are being turned off and new ones aren't being turned out. Betting on live races is flat, along with the money for top finishers. Alarmed, horse owners and others are trying to envision the bold stroke that could return Maryland - once a racing innovator - to the sport's forefront.

In boardrooms, barns and the parlors of country homes, discussion has moved beyond blame to brainstorming. Among the proposed remedies: Maryland needs a "supertrack." Existing tracks need new owners. The state needs night racing. It needs less racing. It needs hip off-track betting centers. It needs slot machines to keep pace with neighbors.

"Something has got to happen, or Maryland racing will continue being left farther and farther behind," said thoroughbred breeder Richie Blue of Brooklandville.

The `supertrack'

Prominent horse owner Stuart S. Janney III of Butler came up with the most far-reaching proposal - a "supertrack" that would combine a new course for thoroughbred racing and the traditional exhibits of the Maryland State Fair. The glitzy, spacious venue would also be used for concerts, rodeos and other events.

The concept emerged three years ago when Janney headed a governor's task force on Maryland racing. To get ideas flowing, he suggested strengthening the link between racing and the State Fair, now held at Timonium, and creating a first-class venue for both. The proposal didn't take hold then, but has gained support recently.

Pimlico Race Course, the Bowie Training Center and the Timonium fairgrounds would be sold, and, with the state providing financial assistance, a multipurpose complex would be built in the Baltimore area. Laurel Park would be used for winter racing and year-round training.

The Preakness, second leg of racing's fabled Triple Crown, would be moved to the new track from antiquated Pimlico.

"I think Pimlico is pretty much `dead man walking,'" Janney said recently. "It would be hard to make it into a first-rate facility, so why throw more money at it?"

Janney acknowledges that a project of Camden Yards' magnitude would be a huge undertaking. Still, he said: "I've always thought it was a great opportunity to do something that would be well-regarded over time."

The concept flowered recently in a committee formed under the auspices of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Mike Pons, president of the association, imagines a horse park with restaurants, a four-star hotel and spa, a pavilion for horse auctions, a racing museum and a slots emporium.

"It's our vision of Maryland racing, but it's more than a racetrack," he said. "It's a whole entertainment center, a destination point."

Kenneth C. Holt, a former state delegate who owns a 130-acre farm north of White Marsh, heads the committee, created to devise plans to upgrade racing, preserve farms and win over Annapolis.

"We're at a crucial point in the life cycle of our industry," said Holt. "I don't believe legislators fully appreciate the scope and impact of it."

Camden Yards model

"Why not a new track?" ask those in racing who have watched the state spend $500 million to build Oriole Park and Ravens Stadium.

"I go to Camden Yards whenever I can get tickets," said Ann Merryman, a trainer in Maryland since 1975. "I could care less about baseball, but I go for the ambience. Everybody's having a good time."

She contrasted the well-tended stadium and the unsightly condition of Laurel Park. After large glass panels in the grandstand began cracking for unknown reasons, the racetrack installed scaffolding and concrete and wire supports as a safety measure.

Similarly Pimlico, built in 1870, was in dire need of updating even before a major power outage on Preakness Day in 1998 focused national attention on its state of disrepair.

The Maryland Jockey Club, the collective name of the companies that own Pimlico, Laurel Park and Bowie, has spent more than $10 million to improve the tracks over the past two years, said President and CEO Joseph A. De Francis. Bristling at criticism of Pimlico and Laurel, he said: "They're far from dumps."

While De Francis is intrigued by the idea of a supertrack and a state fair on the same site, he says there are major political and economic hurdles to be overcome. Finding a site that works for everybody, he said, would be a "thorny and complex problem."

Transforming the fair

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