Laurel Park: Big anniversary, uncertain future

  • Fans gather at the rail around the track to watch live racing at Laurel Park's 100th anniversary celebration Saturday.
Fans gather at the rail around the track to watch live racing… (Photo by Nate Pesce, Patuxent…)
October 18, 2011|By John Scheinman

The 100th anniversary of racing at Laurel Park unfurled Saturday, Oct. 15, with much fanfare at the once-grand, now-fading facility that sits at the crossroads of Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties.

Along with a full card of live races on a nearly cloud-free afternoon, the crowd of 4,657 was treated to barbecue and beer specials and booths selling jewelry and handbags, cowboy hats and western wear. In a "Kids Craft Corral," children frolicked in a moon bounce, had their hair dyed and faces painted while parents lounged in the sunshine at picnic tables.

The track showcased medieval combat, basset hound and Jack Russell terrier races as well as a cupcake relay and assorted giveaways.

The track spent more than $100,000 on the 100th anniversary celebration, track president Tom Chuckas said.

Jockeys raised money for two Laurel schools during the day through a challenge that pitted riders representing Brock Bridge Elementary against those representing Maryland City Elementary.

With handicappers in the crowd lining the rail to size up runners during the post parades, or picking winners from their programs in front of simulcast monitors, the day was everything one could hope for at a racetrack on a fall weekend afternoon.

Behind the idyllic scene, however, hovered a sense of deep foreboding. The Maryland Jockey Club will run 146 days of live racing in 2011, but how many next year no one knows.

Chuckas did not deny rumors that owner Frank Stronach wants to run 40 days next year at Pimlico Race Course, the Baltimore home of the Preakness Stakes, and none at Laurel Park at all.

The state thoroughbred tracks have suffered a steep decline in racing quality and wagering in the past decade while failing to secure a license to operate slot machines on their premises. Racetracks with slots in surrounding states have pushed the Maryland tracks, once the undisputed leader in the Mid-Atlantic, to the bottom of the pile.

The spring meet at Pimlico, with the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, is the only time the Maryland Jockey Club turns a profit.

"I am really nervous about Maryland racing these days," said Bobby Lillis, the benefits coordinator for the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund. "I'm hoping the horsemen and Stronach and management and the powers that be negotiate a better plan."

Changes coming

Last year, Stronach threatened to cut racing to just 77 days in the state but relented when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley brokered an 11th-hour deal that subsidized track operations with slot machine revenues through 2012.

The deal stipulated management and the state horsemen come together and develop a five-year agreement to see Maryland racing safely into the future. Negotiations, not made public, are ongoing, track president Chuckas said. The Maryland State Racing Commission expects Chuckas to present dates for live racing at its monthly meeting in November.

"I think it's fair to say that, based on the last couple years, the way the Maryland Jockey club has operated is financially not viable," Chuckas said. "So changes have to occur. I don't know exactly at this point what the changes are. We're taking a look at a multitude of options. So, to answer your question, 'Is it going to be 40 days?' I can't say that. We, hopefully are trying to come up with a game plan that addresses the racetrack and Frank's needs from a financial standpoint, but also the horsemen's perspective of (desiring to run) 146 days."

Lillis said he worries about what would happen to all the employees of not only the track but all the disparate businesses that support racing if the live schedule were cut to 40 days. Laurel Park is conducting 117 days of live racing this year and currently running Tuesdays through Saturdays.

"The horse industry in Maryland really does employ 17,000 to 20,000 people when you come down to the farmers and the people who build the fences and feed the horses and hot walkers and mutuel tellers," he said. "Where are they going to go? And not to take anything away from the hot walker or the groom, but most of them don't have any other skills."

'We have to compete'

Trainer Linda Albert said management hasn't done enough to make Laurel Park successful.

"Unfortunately, since these guys have been in charge, Preakness Day is what saves us," said Albert, who lives in Bowie. "I don't know why we couldn't do better here (at Laurel), because it needs to be pushed more. It's sad; it's a sad facility. When I talk to friends, they say, 'Racing at Laurel? Really?' They don't even know it's going on.

"I'd like to see them put a little money in to make it look nicer, and I'd like to see them get Friday evening racing. That seems to work elsewhere. You walk in to Laurel and the TVs aren't working, the bathrooms are disgusting. If it's going to be 77 days or 40 days, what's the point? That's no living for me. We have to compete. I don't make money standing around the barn."

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