Major redevelopment of Laurel Park proposed again

Pimlico is home to some of the most exhilarating and important horse races in history. It annually hosts the Preakness, the second stop on the road to the Triple Crown and primary revenue-driver for its ownership group.

As the Maryland Jockey Club charts its future, though, the immediate focus appears to be on its lesser-known track. In a preliminary capital improvement plan submitted to the state late last week and made public Tuesday, the Jockey Club outlined a plan to essentially rebuild Laurel Park as a mixed-use development featuring retail and a hotel surrounding the track.

Legislation enacted last year required the Jockey Club and the state's harness tracks to submit their plans to the state to qualify for slots revenues set aside for racetrack redevelopment. A 10-year deal between the thoroughbred tracks, horsemen and breeders has prompted the Jockey Club to look at major reinvestments in Laurel and Pimlico after years of holding off because the existing business model was untenable.

The Jockey Club had said all along it plans to build new stalls at both tracks, but offered only a rough sketch Tuesday of what else would be done to take advantage of the matching funds from the state, which are projected to reach $112 million over 16 years. That should be enough, Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas said, to pay for a major overhaul at both properties.

Pimlico needs it badly, but plans for rebuilding Laurel have been in the works for several years, Chuckas said, and will only have to be tinkered with slightly. The Jockey Club and its parent company, the Stronach Group, are studying how best to renovate the clubhouse and grandstand at Pimlico.

"We realize that, for a multitude of reasons, Pimlico is outdated," Stronach said. "For the future of Maryland racing, something has to be done with Pimlico. ... But we're being cautious here. When we do decide what has to be done, we want to state it emphatically and be sure we're going to do it. We don't want to mislead anybody."

The Jockey Club's plans call for the construction of new grooms quarters and six new barns in the backstretch area of Pimlico on the far eastern side of the property at a cost of $15.5 million. That could displace parking for up to 1,000 cars for Sinai Hospital employees, and both the hospital and area homeowners are upset they've yet to be consulted by Jockey Club officials.

"We've reached out to them four or five times in writing over the last several years, asking where else we could go, when we'd have to go, to discuss alternatives," said Martha Nathanson, the vice president of government relations at LifeBridge Health. "We've heard nothing back, and we're anxious to have that conversation."

Chuckas, who emphasized that the Jockey Club's plans were preliminary, said working with neighbors at both tracks was a priority.

As for Laurel, Frank Stronach has floated the same general proposal several times since buying the Jockey Club a decade ago, and executed a similar redesign at Gulfstream Park in Florida. He has long wanted to destroy the clubhouse and rebuild it across the track, on wooded land that fronts Maryland Route 198. Those plans also called for razing all of Laurel's stabling area and moving it into a vacant plot just north of the track proper.

The Jockey Club took steps toward moving the barns five years ago by clearing out 55 acres across Brock Bridge Road. That land will finally be surrounded by fencing and connected to the current stabling area with a tunnel during phase one of the project, scheduled to take place this year, according to the preliminary plan. At least 150 stalls will also be built there.

Phase two of the project, scheduled to be completed in 2014, will add another 150. The project is expected to cost $14.8 million. Building the new stalls at Laurel is mandated by the 10-year deal, which allows for the closing of the Bowie training center and the transfer of trainers based there to the other tracks.

Eventually, Chuckas said, the existing barn area would also become space for retail shops.

"There are logistical problems with moving all of the barns," said Alan Foreman, lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "But they know that. We've addressed this with the Jockey Club and Stronach before. We've seen this, and they've heard our thoughts. We'll just need to have those discussions again."

Foreman said these logistical problems include the fact that the new stalls would be farther from the track and that some of the new buildings might be located on protected wetlands.

Chuckas said he expects to make a formal request to use redevelopment money soon; the Maryland Racing Commission must grant its approval.

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