Eveline Kjelstrup, assistant trainer to trainer Rodney Jenkins… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
Frances Kent has made her home for 22 years in one room along the backstretch at Laurel Park. She pays no rent, but also has no private bath or cooking appliances, which are not allowed, so she saves coupons for Arby's roast beef specials and other fast food, and finds that canned "tomato soup is not bad cold."
Lately, concerns as basic as food and shelter have been heightened in this part of the track as Kent, 69, who works as a horse walker, has wondered about making it to year 23 in room 13 in the cinderblock bunkhouse among the horse barns. Rumors of the park closing were buzzing from late fall into winter, and Kent had begun to check out places near her home town of Dublin, Va., for spots to store her possessions if she had to move out. She also worried about her colleagues.
"A lot of them will be living under the bridges" if the park were to close, said Kent, referring to hundreds of grooms and horse walkers who call Laurel Park their workplace and also their home. "And the bridges aren't safe to be under."
Her bunkhouse neighbor, Annamarie Starnes, 54, a groom and walker, said, "you have people here who wouldn't have a chance" working elsewhere. "This is all they know."
The track never had to make an announcement about imminent closure, and the immediate fear has subsided for now. An agreement struck last week by key players in Maryland racing will guarantee that the Preakness Stakes will run at Pimlico Race Course and thoroughbred meets will continue in 2011. The 146-day schedule starts in Laurel on Jan. 1.
New Year's Day offerings include nine races and a champagne brunch for $23 per person, featuring stations where steak is carved, omelets prepared and shrimp stir-fried as you wait. The day will mark the beginning of Laurel Park's centennial year.
The pact that made it possible was not meant to solve the industry's long-term problems, but the people who make their living at Laurel say news of the deal unleashed a wave of relief — from the bunkhouses to the modest executive offices by the grandstand.
"That was everybody's early Christmas present," said Georganne Hale, the director of racing and racing secretary, who is now busy making up for lost time putting together the guide that trainers will use to enter horses in January races.
Many details that go into a season, from writing the race schedule to drafting a contract to lease the starting gate, were in limbo until last week, she said. The Maryland Jockey Club — which runs Pimlico, Laurel and a training center at Bowie — published a 2011 wall calendar that is essentially blank, as it includes no dates for the Maryland Million, Sunshine Million or other events like the Preakness, reflecting the latest bout of uncertainty to hit Maryland racing.
Maryland tracks for years have faced increasing competition from expanded lotteries, slots and other gambling options. With the exception of the Preakness, track crowds have fallen steadily and the Jockey Club has been losing about $7 million a year for at least three years, said President Tom Chuckas. Changes in track ownership in the past 10 years have raised periodic alarms that Maryland was about to lose the Preakness — the state's biggest single sporting event and the economic engine for the rest of the thoroughbred season — and with it, the entire racing business.
The crisis threatened the Jockey Club's 350 full-time and 650 part-time workers, as well as thousands of others whose livelihoods depend on racing. A 1999 study tied 9,000 jobs in Maryland to horse racing and breeding, with an overall economic impact of $600 million a year.
While the powerful players wrangled the latest deal at the State House in Annapolis, people at the track wondered what the future might hold if a way of work and life they've known for decades came to an end. Trainers had started moving horses to winter quarters or other trainers elsewhere, Hale said.
"People were frantic. ... 'Oh my God, what are we going to do,' " said Becky Goodman, 42, a former groom whose fiance works at Laurel. She said she was less concerned than some others, because she has experience working for fast-food restaurants and in cosmetology, and figured she could find work elsewhere.
Starnes had no such reassurances. She's worked in racing for 29 years, and has experience as a nurse's aide and store manager. But her severe rheumatoid arthritis limits her dexterity. She has difficulty with some of the work she does now because her hands sometimes lock up in a grip.
"I really don't know what I would do," she said. "I'd probably be homeless, sleeping in my car."
Even for those who don't live at the track, it's still a home base. The newly settled yearlong schedule spares track workers from having to uproot their lives every few months, following racing seasons from one state to another. Track workers shift to Pimlico after Laurel's live racing ends March 26, but they do not have to leave Maryland.