Maryland horse racing officials today announced a $60 million plan to renovate racetracks at Pimlico and Laurel and expand off-track betting opportunities in an effort to revive the state's stagnant racing industry during the next five years.
Grandstands at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park would get upgrades, new food courts and nicer landscaping. Outdated and crumbling barns at Pimlico would be torn down to make way for more parking and be rebuilt elsewhere. Marketing efforts would be redoubled.
The overhaul is part of a larger campaign to help the facilities compete with an increasingly crowded field of betting and sports activities in the region, including the state lottery and all its related games, slot machines at Delaware horse racing tracks, and new football, baseball and basketball venues in Baltimore and Washington.
The proposal is the result of a directive by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and the state legislature calling for better management and marketing and a new vision for racing's future. State leaders were so adamant that the industry think long-term, they tied $10 million worth of state aid to boost horse racing purses to the Maryland Jockey Club's delivery of the plan.
"We have to move forward because our list of competitors is moving ahead," said Joseph A. De Francis, president and chief executive of the Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel. "This plan allows us to compete more effectively with all of them."
The plan must be approved by state leaders, but Glendening's initial reaction was positive. Among other things, the plan calls for a new senior executive to oversee marketing, promotions and customer service, and a $5 million renovation and expansion of off-track betting locations. At least three new sites would be added statewide.
"This plan . . . is a significant, positive step forward," Glendening, who is on a European trade mission, said in a prepared statement. "Improving the appearance and atmosphere of Pimlico is good for the track, good for the neighborhood, and good for horse breeding, training and racing community. . . . Horse racing in Maryland once again has the opportunity to offer first-class facilities, celebrated races and premier events."
At today's news conference, De Francis reiterated that he has given up his attempt to bring slots to Maryland racetracks. De Francis backed Glendening's rivals in last fall's gubernatorial election, contending that slot machines were imperative to keep the state racing industry viable.
But Glendening, an opponent of slots, exacted a pledge from De Francis that the track owner would drop his crusade for slots in exchange for receiving state dollars to enhance purses. Pressed on the issue today, De Francis said simply: "The slots issue is off the table."
In addition to track renovations and more spending on marketing, De Francis announced a new agreement between the thoroughbred and harness racetrack owners that calls for the groups -- which have feuded often -- to share all racing profits. Currently, the thoroughbred industry runs daytime activities and the standardbred association operates nighttime races, and they do not share revenue.
"Now we will be real partners for the first time," De Francis said.
Horse racing is a $700 million-a-year industry in Maryland and employs about 17,000 people. But growth in the industry has been stagnant in recent years, and the industry has become more reliant on the state to supplement racing purses as a way to keep the industry solvent.
"Without the state purse subsidy, the industry would be at a tremendous disadvantage and it would be difficult for us to compete," said Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association Inc., which represents 3,000 owners and trainers across the state.
Just more than half of the $60 million price tag would be paid by the Maryland Jockey Club, and the rest would be financed through the state and paid off from racing industry revenue.
De Francis said plans for the renovations and management of the facilities should be complete by 2002. And Glendening said state leaders would be watching.
"Future state commitments will depend on actual progress on renovations, quality management, and effective, sustained marketing and promotions effort," he said in his statement.
CAPTION: Joseph A. De Francis, head of the Maryland Jockey Club, outlines proposed track renovations during a news conference. The industry plan will need state approval.