Posted: March 19, 2019
The Bowie City Council the evening of March 18 indicated it is receptive to plans by the Maryland Jockey Club to rebuild and reopen the dormant training center on the old Bowie Race Course property.
It was the first formal presentation by the MJC before local officials about the facility, which closed in April 2015. The $40 million project is tied to another $80 million in planned renovations and reconstruction at Laurel Park, located about 15 miles from the training center.
MJC President Sal Sinatra said the plans, which aren’t final, call for use of the entire property—the racetrack is on one side of Race Track Road and most of the barn area is on the other side. They are connected by covered bridge horse path that would be refurbished and utilized.
Sinatra said the one-mile dirt course would be restored and a seven-furlong Tapeta surface installed inside the main track to maximize training opportunities, and that he recommended the existing barns, which at one time housed about 1,000 horses, be leveled and rebuilt. He also said he’d like to preserve and renovate the “Hacienda,” a covered circular, narrow training track that was regularly used in the winter.
The training center also would have amenities such as whirlpools and a medical facility along with modern dormitories.
“We’ve been investing in Maryland racing, which has had somewhat of a revival,” Sinatra told council members. “In order to have a ‘super track’ at Laurel, we need horse inventory. We could offer things at a training center we can’t offer at racetracks.”
MJC lobbyist Mike Johansen updated the city council on current legislation, which is key to the Bowie Training Center and Laurel projects. State lawmakers are in negotiations over a bill that would expand the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account to not only include Bowie but to allow the Maryland Economic Development Corp. to float bonds that would expedite the projects.
RFRA, which allows tracks to make capital improvements if they match the amount withdrawn, is funded by 1% of video lottery terminal revenue at five of Maryland’s six casinos. The 80% annual Thoroughbred share is about $8 million.
The General Assembly is also grappling with legislation that would create a study group to analyze a Maryland Stadium Authority report and make funding recommendations on a major reconstruction of Pimlico Race Course. The Stronach Group, which owns the MJC, hasn’t opposed the bill but has said it intends to invest its financial resources in Laurel and Bowie.
“The vision would mean year-round racing and training could occur somewhere other than Pimlico,” Johansen said. “So the need for Bowie arises whether Pimlico stays as a venue for the Preakness Stakes or if something else happens.”
Phase 2 of the MSA Pimlico study calls for a small ship-in barn complex that would be used for a limited number of live racing days including the Preakness. Training would not be available year-round.
The RFRA/MEDCO bill has not yet made it to the floor of the House of Delegates or Senate with several weeks remaining in the 2019 General Assembly session. Meanwhile, a bill that would make Bowie eligible for RFRA funding under existing parameters of the law was expected to pass the Senate March 19. On March 18, the House passed legislation that would make the Maryland State Fair at Timonium eligible for RFRA money ($355,000-$389,000) each year from fiscal 2020-24.
Bowie City Council members focused their comments and questions on adherence to the local permitting process, obtaining input from nearby residents, projected impact on the local highway system, and linking the training center with a nearby trail system and two waterways that border the training center property–the Patuxent River and Horsepen Branch.
“We’ll ask the community what its needs are,” Sinatra said. “There is a lot of open space there that could be used for other things (involving the community).”
Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson noted that “horse racing has a long history” in Bowie and said he’d like that reflected at the training center.
“We want to work together with you,” Robinson told the MJC officials. “We support the legislation. Hopefully as this thing goes forward, it will work out. You have now set the standard for a world-class training center, and we will hold you to it.”
The Laurel project entails a complete overhaul of the grandstand and clubhouse as well as barn area improvements. Johansen said if the financing legislation is approved, work could begin after the Maryland Million in October of this year.
(Bowie Training Center photo by Tom LaMarra)