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Jockey Club’s plans are blueprint for future

The plans that the owners of the state’s horse racing tracks have presented to the Maryland Racing Commission for updating their aging facilities sketch out publicly the first steps in a physical transformation many say is essential for reviving the fledgling industry.

Slow times at Laurel Park in this 2010 photo. Retail space and a hotel are one idea for revitalizing the track.

Under legislation passed last year, the tracks were required to submit their capital improvement plans by Feb. 1 in order to qualify for slots revenue set aside in the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account. With the expansion of gambling in Maryland, that fund has swelled at a faster rate than industry players are accustomed to — and many said they’re eager to claim their share.

“Over the years, there’s been lots of different plans for refurbishing Pimlico and Laurel … but none of it has been in the context of the state putting up money,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “And needless to say, none of it has ever gotten done. So hopefully with this money, [the tracks] will actually be able to do some of this stuff they’ve been wanting to.”

The blueprint for capital improvements to Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park received the most attention after the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the two thoroughbred tracks, publicized the details Tuesday. The plan builds on a recent 10-year agreement between owners, breeders and the tracks that consolidates thoroughbred racing by closing the training facility at Bowie and transferring all operations to Pimlico and Laurel.

The plan outlines estimated costs of the jockey club’s desired capital improvements and a rough timeline for their implementation, but it’s not a formal request for funding. Each project must be approved by the state in order to receive 50 percent matching funds, said jockey club President Tom Chuckas, who said lots more work remains to be done.

In that respect, the plan is little more than a wish list. But several people involved with the industry said the value lies in what it represents for the industry’s future.

“It reconfirms what they’re hoping to do,” Goodall said. “By going ahead and putting a capital improvement plan to the state, it’s saying they want to use this money.”

The first phase of the Jockey Club’s plan focuses on one priority: equipping the two tracks with the necessary amenities — most importantly, 150 new stalls at Laurel this year — to allow the Bowie facility to close before 2014, as agreed. It also calls for adding an additional 150 stalls at Laurel by the end of 2014 and building a gate house at the Brock Bridge Road entrance.

At Pimlico, phase one includes constructing six barns with 216 stalls and building living quarters for hundreds of trainers and others displaced from Bowie. The first phase will cost an estimated $30.3 million between the two facilities.

Tracks don’t compete for available RFRA money; each track receives a certain portion of the account, which had reached $13.8 million by Jan. 31. Chuckas said the jockey club will receive about $7 million a year in matched funds, or about $112 million over 16 years, which he said should be enough to cover major improvements envisioned over the next several years.

The Stronach Group, the jockey club’s parent, has long toyed with ambitious plans to overhaul both Pimlico and Laurel Park, which might one day feature retail space and a hotel, Chuckas said. Renovations to Pimlico’s grandstand and clubhouse are also on the drawing board, and Chuckas said ideas include building new viewing suites or adding more dining areas.

But those “patron-focused” investments will come later. What’s important now, officials said, is laying the groundwork by revamping the “backstretch” — the training infrastructure and other amenities that support the actual racing. With that out of the way, they can focus on the front of the house, which Chuckas admitted needs a lot of work.

“The biggest thing is that now [the jockey club can] actually follow through with their commitments to make the necessary improvements to the backstretch,” said Alan Foreman, counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association. “We are a business that depends on the quality of the racing and the support structures for the racing, so that had to be addressed.”

Thoroughbred racing tends to dominate the equestrian spotlight; it attracts more fans and generators more money than its sister sport: standardbred racing, which is held at Rosecroft Raceway and Ocean Downs Racetrack.

But both types of are eligible to receive money from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, and both play an important role in the industry’s comeback overall, several people said.

“It’s important to look at the whole industry, especially in this context, because all the facilities need updating and that was the purpose of the legislation originally,” Goodall said.

Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Rosecroft, also filed a preliminary plan to the racing commission, said Christopher McErlean, vice president of racing. The plan isn’t nearly as elaborate, he said; it mostly outlines equipment upgrades and improvements to the patron experience, such as enhancing dining areas and installing better heating and ventilation systems.

McErlean said he’s applied for $1.5 million worth of projects each year for the next three years — the minimum required by the legislation — and that he’s awaiting the next step.

Standardbred racing receives 20 percent of the total RFRA money; thoroughbred racing the other 80 percent. Within each group, fund allocations for each track are determined by the number of racing days.

The owners of Ocean Downs could not be reached for comment, but Tom Cooke, president of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, said he thinks they, too, applied for their RFRA money by the deadline.