Entertainment, technology wave of horse racing future

Big-business track owners bring capital, marketing

Horse Racing

August 13, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Horse racing fans in the future may be surprised at what they find at the track: touch-screen video monitors, corporate suites, hand-held devices that permit patrons to bet from their seats.

As publicly traded conglomerates buy up tracks around the country -- including Maryland's -- they are bringing marketing savvy and investment capital to a sport badly in need of both. The result is a flurry of track upgrades, which, if it continues, could help the sport regain lost popularity.

"The industry has lagged a bit in the entertainment world. What you see happening is the public and owners both want the same facilities they see in other sports," said Dennis DeWitt, president of Luckett & Farley, an architectural firm based in Louisville, Ky.

"Racing is trying to catch up," DeWitt said.

Magna Entertainment Corp., which last month struck a deal to acquire control of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has been outspoken on the need to modernize aging tracks and has pledged to transform Maryland's, even if that means tearing down Pimlico.

DeWitt's company is overseeing a massive renovation of the nation's most famous track, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. In the first phase, now under way, $27 million will be spent rehabilitating the track's signature twin spires, adding 66 corporate suites and building a new "club" lounge.

An even more ambitious, $100 million second phase would add another dozen suites, a 1,700-seat simulcast wagering center, lights for night racing, new restaurants and enhancements that might include hand-held betting devices.

DeWitt said Churchill officials are looking into the feasibility of the devices, along with computer monitors that would allow bettors to view video replays of races and obtain past-performance data from their seats.

The idea, at Churchill and elsewhere, is to shoehorn a modern, high-tech sport into structures built before the advent of electricity. Buildings such as Pimlico and Churchill Downs have been wired, air conditioned and expanded over the years, resulting in inefficient structures. "They grow like topsy and become dysfunctional after a while," DeWitt said.

In England, the push to renovate tracks is further along. Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc., the U.S.-based firm that revolutionized baseball with its design of Oriole Park, is renovating one track and building a new one from scratch.

"Racetracks recognize they have to widen their appeal. They can't rely on the same old folks coming anymore," said Michael Crook, an associate principal with HOK's London office.

The new, $35 million track he is helping design will incorporate a more open architecture than old tracks and will be used for conferences and festivals between race meets. Its focal point will be a glass-fronted, steel-clad, chrysalis-shaped building with a 7,000-seat grandstand, restaurants, bars, exhibition and conference space and a fitness center.

HOK also is exploring various technological innovations, including new ways of delivering past-performance information and a specialized debit card system through which people can bet on races and buy food or merchandise at on-track shops.

"I would think American racing has got to respond like British racing has," he said.

One of the top racetrack architects in the United States, Donald Dissinger, senior vice president with Ewing Cole Cherry Brott in Philadelphia, said there is a surge in renovation work. He said it is being driven by the expansion of gaming, much of it taking place at racetracks, rather than the popularity of thoroughbreds.

"I've been hanging onto this market for 20 years and there wasn't much happening. My sense is there is a resurgence. I think everybody would like to see that happening," said Dissinger, who has served as a consultant for Magna. His firm designed Lone Star Park, opened in 1996 outside Dallas, and renovations of Hollywood Park, Belmont Park and the Meadowlands.

He said big tracks such as Pimlico need to be multipurpose, accommodating big crowds on big days -- possibly with temporary seating -- and then converting to handle smaller crowds and alternative uses, such as conferences.

"You've got to be able to scale down and put under-performing real estate to other use," he said. "Building grandstands is not the way to go."

Magna's chairman, Frank Stronach, recently told The Sun he thinks Pimlico should be razed and rebuilt, an opinion that apparently took his partners by surprise. They have spoken merely of renovating, not replacing, both Laurel and Pimlico and say no specific designs yet exist.

Clues to Magna's vision for racetracks can be found in proposals for its other facilities, chiefly Gulfstream Park in Florida, where Dissinger oversaw the creation of an elaborate master plan. The renovation plan -- put on hold as the firm weathers financial turbulence -- called for $60 million to transform Gulfstream into what Magna calls a "North American super track," or "Nastrack."

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