$420M track overhaul due if slots OK'd

Laurel Park, then Pimlico would be torn down, rebuilt in `first class' way

Bowie up in air in 24-month plan

`It will take an effort of gigantic proportions'

Horse Racing

March 08, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Jockey Club plans a $420 million project to tear down and rebuild its tracks and training facilities if the General Assembly approves Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal for slot machines at racetracks.

Construction plans call for a feverish overhaul of all aspects of Pimlico and Laurel Park. The grandstands and clubhouses would be rebuilt in a way that would accommodate slots, and racing surfaces and stable areas would be reconstructed. The training center at Bowie would be rebuilt or replaced with a new center - possibly in Howard County - midway between Laurel Park and Pimlico, which is in Northwest Baltimore.

"The plan is to do everything first-class, including the barns," Lou Raffetto Jr., the Maryland Jockey Club's chief operating officer, said yesterday. "If we get slots, the amount of work that needs to be done is incredible.

"It will take an effort of gigantic proportions. But there's no thinking it's not going to happen. Everybody is looking forward to the end result - two new racetracks and a training center we can be proud of."

Ehrlich has proposed 3,500 slot machines each at Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County, and another 1,000 at a track under construction in Allegany County. Under a revised plan that the governor released Wednesday, track owners would receive 46 percent of slots proceeds. But the measure has met with vocal resistance in the legislature and a move to delay it for a year.

Raffetto said construction planning began in November - after Ehrlich's election and the closing of the deal between the jockey club and Magna Entertainment Corp. Canadian-based Magna, owner or operator of 14 racetracks, became majority owner of the Maryland Jockey Club in a $117.5 million deal finalized Nov. 27.

Raffetto said the MJC would borrow $500 million and repay it with profits from slots. Of that $500 million, $80 million would go for license fees to the state - $40 million each for Pimlico and Laurel Park. The remaining $420 million would go for construction - about $200 million each at Pimlico and Laurel Park, and about $20 million at Bowie or a new training center.

The construction timetable would be speeded up so that slot machines could be operational as soon as possible, Raffetto said. The goal would be to complete all work within 24 months.

"A lot of this is ambitious," Raffetto said. "And everything's a huge puzzle. How do you redo a track and continue training and racing? Given the proper manpower and a lot of money, we're told we can get the job done."

Walter Lynch has been hired as project coordinator of the massive undertaking. He was project manager of the Washington Redskins stadium in Landover. It was built in 18 months on a hurry-up schedule.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents trainers and horse owners, said no one from the Maryland Jockey Club had discussed the plan with his group. He said his main concern would be adequate stabling for horses during construction so that races could still be run.

"I'm not exactly sure how the mechanics would work," Hoffberger said. "But if they want to do that, it's a great deal. I've heard talk of these kind of plans in the past."

He was referring to previous renovation plans that never came to fruition.

If the state approves slots, the MJC would begin tearing down Laurel Park in April after racing shifts from Laurel to Pimlico at the end of March, Raffetto said. A new clubhouse and grandstand would be built, combining slots and horse betting, and the dirt and grass racing surfaces would be rebuilt, he said. Also, a new stable would be constructed - possibly with a training track - largely on 61 acres the MJC owns across Brock Bridge Road next to the current stable.

Then, Raffetto said, as soon as Pimlico ends its meet in June, work would begin there. The result would be a new grandstand and clubhouse with slots and betting areas, new dirt and turf tracks, and barns with 250 stalls for horses shipping in to race and for Preakness week.

No more year-round stabling would take place at Pimlico, he said. Instead, stable areas would be enlarged at Laurel and Bowie or at a new center. The decision on whether to rebuild Bowie has not been made, Raffetto said.

Work would be done in phases so that some areas of each track would remain open for betting while others were closed for construction. Raffetto said plans call for such swift work at Pimlico that the Preakness could be run there in 2004.

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