Cautious optimism sums up reaction to plan for Pimlico

Trainers like the sound of Stronach's promises, but want to see action

Horse Racing

August 08, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Trainers with sizable groups of horses stabled at Pimlico Race Course have reacted with cautious optimism and some doubt about Magna Entertainment Corp.'s plans to raze the historic track and reconstruct it from the ground up.

While they agree that the temporary loss of barn space some have occupied for more than 30 years would represent an inconvenience, they are willing to accept that if Frank Stronach's grandiose ideas come to fruition.

"If they don't tear it down, some day it's just going to fall down," said Richard Small with typical candor. "And you'll have to get your horses out of there, anyway."

Small's stock has been quartered at Old Hilltop since he returned from Vietnam in 1971, and few know better the conditions that exist in the track's barns.

"I don't know Stronach, but I think this is real positive, and we all have to be optimistic. You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. At least he has some ideas about ways to ensure live racing keeps progressing here."

Still, there is skepticism among trainers that the plans will ever be realized.

"At this point, I don't have any concerns," said Fran Campitelli, whose horses have resided at Pimlico almost as long as Small's. "When they start tearing down the barns, that's when I'll worry.

"He says we're No. 1 on his priority list and if he lives up to his word, it'll be great for Maryland racing," said Mary Eppler, who has 38 animals at Pimlico. "It's going to be hard to go to Bowie or somewhere else, but we've had to do it before."

Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, foresees no problem with housing the extra horses at the Bowie training center and Laurel Park if and when Pimlico is rebuilt.

Last winter, his organization wanted to close Pimlico, but decided against it when given a request to "keep upwards of 2,300 horses. When the dust settled, we had 1,950 horses on the grounds. We could have put all of them at Laurel and Bowie and never missed a beat."

According to Raffetto, Pimlico is home to 350 to 700 horses at any particular time during a year and holds approximately 2,000 over the entire year.

Eppler pointed out that when Pimlico was closed for the winter several years ago, trainers had to find other quarters for "about six months. This would require being gone a year or two."

Small said the current stall policy allows trainers to keep horses on the grounds that aren't actively racing for one reason or another (injury, sickness, not ready). Those could be sent to a farm, he maintained.

"There are plenty of other places to go; you just have to figure out where," he said. "In this area, you can race at Penn National, Charles Town, Delaware, Philadelphia, all kinds of places. You go where the horses take you.

"Right now, there are a whole lot of horses at the track that have no business there. They have enough stalls here if you weed out those that aren't actually racing."

Small also believes it might be good experience for trainers to race elsewhere while the rebuilding takes place. "Everybody ought to go on the road for one year; it'd be healthy for them all," he said.

Pimlico is convenient for those trainers who live in northwest or northern Baltimore County, Carroll County or Harford County. To train at Laurel or Bowie would require concessions.

"To get improvements, you have to give up a little something," Campitelli said. "It would be worth it."

Eppler reasoned that perhaps stall space at Timonium could be opened during the building period. "I don't want to go to another state. I live here. I want my business here."

Fans returned to Laurel Park for the first time since Stronach's plans were disclosed last weekend.

Ted Shrader of Silver Spring said he believes "it might be all right" to run the Preakness at Laurel for a year, "but I'd hate to see it leave Baltimore altogether. I like to go up there when they have the big races at Pimlico.

"Stronach has the money to do what he says if he has all his i's dotted."

Murray Scott, a former trainer who drives a van regularly to the Maryland tracks from Philadelphia for Guadalupe Preciado and other trainers, is among the skeptics.

"So far, he [Stronach] has spent a lot of money in acquisition, but hasn't done anything with any of the tracks he bought," Scott said. "He's given this same speech to everybody else he has bought, but hasn't improved anything yet and that scares people."

He agrees with Shrader that shifting the Preakness to Laurel would be OK for a brief time. "I just wouldn't want to see it moved out of the state," he said.

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