Opening-day visitors at Laurel Park will see a racetrack in the midst of a profound transformation. Renovations are being made throughout the facility -- a project that will last more than a year -- and they are not merely cosmetic. They reflect the changes in the way modern American racetracks function.
The advent of full-card simulcasting has, of course, altered the behavior of most horseplayers. Patrons at Maryland tracks now wager twice as much on televised out-of-state simulcasts than they do on live races, and many are oblivious to the presence of living, breathing thoroughbreds on the racetrack. As a result, the design of the grandstand has become obsolete. On a typical day at Laurel, there will be a scattering of people in the thousands of seats overlooking the racetrack, because most bettors would rather be sitting in front of a bank of television sets in the bowels of the grandstand. The design of other areas -- such as the dining room and Sports Palace -- had become as outmoded as the grandstand seating area.
The Maryland tracks were prodded this year by Gov. Parris Glendening to improve their facilities. Angered by the political opposition of track president Joe De Francis, Glendening threatened to stop state subsidies for purse money unless De Francis presented a credible plan to improve his product. When the Maryland Jockey Club unveiled its proposed improvements, it emphasized landscaping, picnic areas, and a new paddock at Pimlico, among other things, because it presumably did not want to say that its grand plan involved lots of new television sets in windowless rooms. The politicians surely wouldn't understand that this is what Laurel and Pimlico need most desperately. There isn't a first-class simulcast area at either of the state's tracks.
De Francis inspected other tracks' simulcast facilities -- particularly the spiffy ones at Philadelphia Park -- as he dealt with the tricky logistics of showing televised races optimally. "I'm a big believer that people have to be sitting close enough to the TVs [to see them clearly]," he said. "And from wherever they sit, every person has to have the ability to see every television signal." The way to accomplish this goal is to build many small simulcast areas, or mini-theaters, so that each customer can follow the action on as many as nine television monitors at once.
A new 96-seat simulcast theater will be open in the clubhouse today, but it is only the first of many areas that will be devoted to simulcasts. The main floor of the clubhouse -- where fans now sit at long rows of desks stretching across the floor -- will be partitioned into separate mini-theaters. The Silks Room, a small dining room in the clubhouse, will be turned into a smoking area -- "a cigar and brandy bar," as De Francis loftily describes it -- with a more efficient presentation of simulcasts. The Sky Suite will be turned into a high rollers' room that De Francis said "will be the most comfortable and desirable place possible for the serious player." The Sports Palace, whose size made it an inefficient simulcast room, has been gutted and eventually will be turned into an area for entertaining large groups.
These physical improvements will be unveiled over the coming months, but several other changes will greet customers today: Parking will be free. The parking lots have been resurfaced. Traffic patterns have been changed. A free Laurel program accompanies paid admission. A jumbo simulcast program with past performances for all tracks operating in the afternoon will sell for $3.
All of these ideas sound well conceived, but Maryland's long-suffering horseplayers will surely harbor some skepticism. Ever since De Francis took over from his father, the Maryland tracks have failed to give their customers clean, comfortable, well-maintained facilities. The Sports Palace -- once the showplace of Maryland racing -- went to seed; its chairs and carpeting were worn and filthy. When Laurel built a simulcast area in the grandstand two years ago, it seemed well conceived but its construction was shoddy. Chairs were uncomfortable and the carpets were falling apart within months. De Francis's late father, Frank, regularly surprised his customers by giving them more than they expected, as he did when he built the Sports Palace. Maryland fans can only hope that Joe will surprise them this time.
If Laurel Park is reinventing itself, this is an apt moment to address another issue. The Sports Palace became intolerable because loud, obscene and unruly customers ruined the place for everybody, and other sections of the track have suffered a similar fate. Laurel's security personnel have been unable or unwilling to enforce minimal standards of civilized behavior. Even if the new simulcast areas turn out to be comfortable and brilliantly designed, their virtues will be almost irrelevant if boorish fans are allowed to spoil the ambience.