`Life is raw' on backstretch

Horse racing: At Maryland's thoroughbred tracks, many in the industry's all-but-hidden supporting cast live in conditions that range from borderline adequate to `deplorable.'

Horse Racing

March 18, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Largely invisible to the outside world, the racetrack backstretch exists as home to the thoroughbreds that power an industry and to the people who take care of them.

Inside fences and behind guarded gates, 539 people who groom and walk horses live at Pimlico, Laurel Park or the Bowie Training Center. No one gets in without a pass or worker's ID. The residents rise before dawn and live by a rhythm set by their animals and set apart from society.

Their communities are dilapidated. The three backstretches have become unsightly mishmashes of rundown barns, rutted horse paths, potholes, uneven pavement, abandoned vehicles, uncollected trash, standing water and muck. In most cases, slum-like living quarters provide workers one stark room with no cooking facilities or bathrooms.

"Conditions are deplorable," said Bobby Lillis, benefits coordinator for the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund, an organization that helps track workers.

Most occupants pay nothing for their 10- or 12-foot-square rooms. The track provides lodging as well as heat and electricity. But that doesn't lessen the inconvenience of trudging over ice or mud to community bathrooms with toilets and showers that may be dirty, broken or lacking hot water.

"Life is raw back here," said Lisa Jimenez, a trainer and exercise rider at Laurel. "It's tough as hell, and some make it tougher for themselves and others. A lot of these people, if they didn't have these jobs and places to live, they'd be living on the street, and society would be paying for them."

It's no secret in the horse world that Maryland's backstretches rank far behind the stable areas at most major tracks, while about the same as at some regional tracks. Executives of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the tracks and training center, acknowledge conditions are unsatisfactory despite some recent upgrades.

"Unfortunately, there hasn't been the money to do major refurbishment," said Lou Raffetto Jr., the jockey club's chief operating officer. "Everything has been a patchwork over the years. The condition of the barn areas does reflect that."

If lack of money has been the problem, then that may be a problem no more. Magna Entertainment Corp., the wealthy, Canadian-based racing conglomerate, became majority owner of the Maryland Jockey Club last fall. And slot machines, if a plan to legalize them at the tracks survives in Annapolis, would be a windfall.

If the General Assembly approves Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal for slots at the tracks, the jockey club plans to tear down and rebuild the stables as part of a complete overhaul.

Jockey club officials said early this month the company plans to spend a minimum of $400 million to demolish Pimlico and Laurel Park and reconstruct them as combination slots casinos and racetracks and a minimum of $20 million to rebuild Bowie or construct a new training center, possibly in Howard County.

Slots in equation

Last summer, shortly after announcing the deal to acquire the jockey club, Magna chairman Frank Stronach made headlines by saying he wanted to raze Pimlico and rebuild it. Work would begin, he said, immediately after this year's Preakness. That plan was later pushed back a year. Now, it is apparently dependent on whether slot machines are approved at Maryland tracks.

Wary that Magna might fail to carry through, the Maryland Racing Commission demanded a commitment to improve the stable areas as a condition of approving the acquisition. In an agreement signed last November, Magna promised to spend $5 million by Aug. 31, another $5 million by Dec. 31 and another $5 million by June 30 next year on "health, safety, environmental issues, the backstretch and racetrack surfaces."

If the General Assembly doesn't pass Ehrlich's proposal, then the jockey club plans a renovation of the backstretches in phases, with the first phase already under way, including building new barns.

Raffetto said the jockey club spent just under a quarter of a million dollars to refurbish Barn 29 at Laurel. Resplendent in its new siding, roof and spruced-up stalls, it will be the prototype as work crews move from barn to barn, Raffetto said.

Some barns at Pimlico and Laurel are 80 years old. Bowie's are about 50 years old.

New barns envisioned

If slots are not approved, Raffetto said, track owners will spend the initial $5 million by continuing to refurbish barns at Laurel and beginning to build new barns on 61 undeveloped acres the jockey club owns across Brock Bridge Road from the current stables.

"We feel we need to do that with or without slots," Raffetto said.

Except for two new dorms at Laurel Park known as Laurel Commons, living conditions are marginal, at best. Laurel Commons opened in fall 2000 with 38 rooms, each for two persons, with bathrooms, microwave, refrigerator, phone hookup, air conditioning and shared laundry rooms. Residents pay $50 per month. The $2 million project was a joint public and private venture.

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