The road to rejuvenating horseracing in Maryland is likely to be a long journey, but the good news is a glance backward shows progress being made, and the gaze of the sport's stewards is fixed on an ambitious future.
Sal Sinatra, president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, along with MJC chief operating officer Tim Ritvo are lobbying for a Breeders' Cup to be held at Laurel Park in 2020 or 2021.
In the meantime, the MJC is planning a revival next year of another legendary race, the Washington D.C. International Stakes, a duel among an international field of horses for a princely amount of money -- the buy-in for each entry would be $500,000.
Bolstering these efforts are the accomplishments MJC leadership has already achieved, such as $30 million in renovations that have improved Laurel Park's infrastructure and the customer experience. In addition, the Maryland Jockey Club -- which operates Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness Stakes and is a subsidiary of Canadian-based The Stronach Group -- can point to better bottom-line financial performances.
For instance, at the Jim McKay Maryland Million Day at Laurel Oct. 22, the total handle of nearly $4.48 million was up 18.1 percent from 2015, an increase of 59.8 percent from 2014. The announced crowd was 21,722, a jump of 7.4 percent compared to last year.
"In our minds, we look at Maryland Million Day as a precursor to other things -- most immediately the D.C. International -- and then for the International to be a precursor of the Breeders' Cup," Sinatra said.
The nearer-term goal is a renewal of the International, a turf race that was run from 1952-1994 at Laurel and enjoyed marquee status with stars such as the great Kelso, the winner in 1964.
"I think this may involve us going from embassy to embassy and explaining the concept," Sinatra said of the recruiting process for the International. "It will be one horse to a country with a $500,000 entry fee. Limiting it to one horse per country should be appealing to a lot of possible foreign entries, because they'll know there will only be one American horse in the race. I'm looking for eight to 10 horses, and that would make it a $4 million to $5 million race."
With the International being the more immediate objective, Sinatra and Ritvo also have their sights set on the Breeders' Cup, a two-day extravaganza of championship races in early November that travels to various tracks. This year, it was held at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., a Stronach Group track. In fact, Santa Anita has held the Breeders' Cup six of the last nine years. Next year, the races are at Del Mar, also in California.
"Santa Anita has been a great venue for the Breeders' Cup, but the biggest complaint you hear is, ‘When is it coming back East,' which would make it more fair for the Europeans," Sinatra said. "New York comes up in the discussion, but my feeling is, ‘Why not here?' We're halfway between Baltimore and Washington. We have great airports. We have one of the best grass courses in the world, which the Europeans would love. Given the work that's going on here, we can put on a great experience for the Breeders' Cup."
Much of the work already done at Laurel has been aimed at enhancing the customer experience, such as 850 flat screen TVs, sweeping updates of dining areas and lounges, and a new simulcast center that gives Laurel Park a modern and open feel with improved viewing.
In terms of track infrastructure, razing old barns and building new ones is already underway, including two barns that will have dorm rooms for backstretch workers. Sinatra hopes to increase the capacity for stabling horses at Laurel from 1,200 to 1,500.
However, all of that pales in comparison with what is on the concept board.
The longer-range vision for Laurel Park is to use nearby land for residential development, townhouses and condominiums, plus retail and dining. With people living in intimate proximity to the track, plus a planned MARC station that would serve residents and visitors, there's the obvious potential for a critical mass of activity at Laurel.
The first phase of work for some of the residential components of the project is expected to start in a couple of months. The target for completion of the train station and a parking garage is 2020 or 2021.
The Stronach Group already has a record of developing an integrated racetrack experience in Florida at Gulfstream Park, where a splashy event, the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational, is being held in January. That race required a $1 million ante for a slot in the race and promises $7 million to the winner, which makes it the world's richest thoroughbred race.
For Laurel Park, the task at hand is creating an environment that makes it easier to sell the concept of bringing premier world-class events, such as the International and the Breeders' Cup, to the track. And, of course, there is the continuing challenge of cultivating an audience for horse racing among younger customers.
To that end, an old Maryland institution, the Preakness Stakes, is helpful in that it draws tens of thousands of millennials to Old Hilltop's infield every year on the third Saturday in May.
"A day at the races is a cheap date, and we do have the advantage of the Preakness bringing all those young people to Pimlico," Sinatra said. "I've always said that they may not know who won the Preakness, but at least we've gotten them to come out to the track one day a year. So coming here to Laurel won't be so foreign to them."
Issue 228: December 2016