Barn area improvements at Laurel, status of Bowie plan discussed

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Jan. 25, 2019

The Maryland Jockey Club is in the process of upgrading barns and other infrastructure on the Laurel Park backstretch as part of a company master plan that includes a rebuild of the Bowie Training Center, work on which could begin this year.

The MJC provided the Maryland Racing Commission with an update on the work during the regulatory agency’s Jan. 24 meeting. The MRC a few months ago requested regular updates on the master plan, which encompasses ongoing renovations to the Laurel grandstand and clubhouse.

After discussions with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, The Stronach Group, which owns the MJC tracks, agreed not to build more tent barns, three of which were constructed at Laurel. MJC President Sal Sinatra told the MRC that new barns—at Laurel or Bowie—would be “block or steel,” and that the company would find other uses for the existing tent barns.

The ongoing work won’t be impacted by the status of Pimlico Race Course, which is the subject of a Maryland Stadium Authority report that was again discussed Jan. 23 during a Maryland Senate Budget and Taxation Committee briefing on the state of the Maryland horseracing industry. Sinatra noted that the second phase of the report makes no provisions for regular stabling of horses at Pimlico.

“Bowie is in play,” Sinatra said. “We’re hopeful that in the next 30 days to decide if Bowie goes first or Laurel goes first. What happens at Pimlico happens. We’re also waiting for a big buildout of the other half of the grandstand at Laurel.”

The Stronach Group has directed most of its capital funding to Laurel, which it hopes is able to host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships by 2022. The company also has expressed its desire to move the Preakness to Laurel in the future.

“We met with the MJC crew on a rehabilitation plan (for the Laurel barn area) and they laid out a plan to do one barn at a time,” MTHA Executive Director David Richardson said at the racing commission meeting. “It’s an ongoing process, and we are working closely with the racetrack. There has been a lot of progress and the relationship is vastly improved. But we’re still faced with the challenges of an aging backstretch.”

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee briefing was designed in large part to educate member lawmakers on the racing industry, which previously had fallen under the auspices of the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Bill Ferguson, Vice Chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, opened the briefing with an explanation.

“The purpose is to get a sense of the industry overall,” he said. “The elephant in the room is the Maryland Stadium Authority report about Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes, but this will not be a briefing about that decision.”

Ferguson said he expects the future of Pimlico will be the subject of future legislative hearings this winter and spring. The MSA, however, did provide the committee with a quick overview of the report, which set the price tag for a Pimlico rebuild at $424 million, which doesn’t include utility infrastructure improvements.

MSA officials said the next step in the process is all parties agreeing to negotiate further agreements. Phase 2 of the Pimlico report didn’t address a funding mechanism.

Tim Ritvo, Chief Operating Officer for The Stronach Group, provided an overview of the company and the growth in the Maryland racing industry in the wake of a 10-year stakeholder agreement tied to revenue from video lottery terminals at the state’s six casinos. He said much of the progress is a result of cooperation among all stakeholders.

“This industry could not survive without this partnership,” Ritvo said. “The racing industry is in great health and growing in Maryland. We all need to look at what’s in the best interests of the industry in total.”

“We still have much more work to do in the remaining four years of the 10-year agreement,” MTHA President Tim Keefe said after discussing the progress in the state.

Ritvo addressed a question from Sen. Doug Peters, whose district includes Bowie, about plans for the Bowie property.

“There is a plan we think we can we can institute that won’t cost any state funds that aren’t already existing,” Ritvo said. “Bowie Race Course could be one of the world’s finest training centers. Bowie is critical to our future.”

The company is still hammering out plans for the property, which is dissected by Race Track Road near the Patuxent River. Most of the barns, which are still standing but in disrepair, are located on the other side of the road from the racetrack and connected by a covered bridge. The facility hasn’t been used for training since early 2015.

(Laurel Park photo by Tom LaMarra)