This spring's season at Pimlico includes attractions designed to renew long-fading interest in thoroughbred horse racing: live music, a wine festival, beer and bourbon tastings, tutorials on betting and special contests.
Get them to come once, the thinking goes, and spectators will be hooked on the experience.
For the first time since the mid-2000s, Pimlico Race Course is poised to become more than an off-track betting center maintained just enough to host one of the country's most important races — the Preakness Stakes.
This year's 10-week meet will be several days longer, and plans call for horses to train there year-round in the coming years. One day, owners also hope a renovated or rebuilt grandstand could compete with venues such as Camden Yards and downtown bars for young, affluent Baltimoreans seeking a hip place to spend an evening.
Executives of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the track, know they face hurdles. Hopes of adding slots gambling to the facility, which has helped revitalize tracks elsewhere, have evaporated. And Pimlico sits on the edge of a rough part of Baltimore, parking is far-flung, and young consumers show little interest in horse racing.
"We simply don't have the amenities that you need to offer consumers in today's market," said Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas at the Northwest Baltimore track. "Everybody knows the facility is not in the greatest shape. But my challenge is: How much do I put into fixing it now when we know down the line that we're in for massive change?"
Dane Kobiskie, one of Maryland's most successful trainers at only 34, has seen promotions like the ones planned at Pimlico work elsewhere. Churchill Downs put up lights and began racing on Friday nights, and Keeneland, a track located a few minutes outside Lexington, Ky., has used cash giveaways to attract college students.
Kobiskie said he realizes drawing new fans to the sport will require luring them to the tracks for reasons other than betting on horses.
"They want a nice, relaxed place to go, to maybe take a date, to spend an evening and get a few drinks," he said. "It's got to be comfortable. It's got to have a reason to come. Live music. Everybody loves live music."
Pimlico, the third-oldest operating track in the United States — it opened in 1870 — has long needed major renovation.
The grandstand, with its sloping concrete floors and aging betting windows, dates to 1954. The last big investment, according to a media guide produced by the Jockey Club, came when the ownership group led by Frank De Francis spent $2.5 million in the late 1980s. (Churchill Downs, meanwhile, underwent a $121 million upgrade at the beginning of the 2000s.)
In recent years, the work done at Pimlico has been mostly cosmetic — new flowers and some painting to give it a sheen for the television cameras during the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. This year, the Jockey Club, owned by Stronach Group, spent $30,000 to spruce up the winner's circle.
The Jockey Club expects to receive a total of more than $100 million over 16 years in matching funds from slots revenue set aside for racetrack improvements. The club has told the state it plans to spend $15.5 million on new barns and living quarters for track workers at Pimlico.
Officials have hinted at more, but Chuckas — who has navigated the Jockey Club through difficult times while working for Frank Stronach — remains reticent to divulge details.
Pimlico will garner national attention during the 138th running of the Preakness on May 18, and Chuckas' goal is to seize that marketing opportunity to draw more fans.
Some of the regulars betting on simulcast races Monday afternoon at Pimlico said they return day after day for the excitement of the races, not the conditions of the betting areas. Still, they said they hope for more comfortable seating, a wider range of food concessions, improved lighting and bigger, flat-screen TVs to replace a wall of outdated monitors on the first floor of the clubhouse.
"They need a whole lot of improvements … to spruce it up a little bit," said James Clark, a retired crane operator from Woodlawn who comes to the track every day to place bets on simulcast thoroughbred and harness racing. "The only time they do something is for Preakness."
A deal between the Jockey Club and horse owners and breeders that guarantees at least 100 days of racing in Maryland through 2024 also should ensure positive cash flow for the Jockey Club. As part of the deal, the company agreed to build new barns at Pimlico and Laurel Park and shut down a training track at Bowie.
Many trainers say Stronach has failed to come through on past promises, and some have sought opportunities elsewhere as racing here foundered.
Kobiskie, Maryland's winningest trainer in 2011, nearly decided to move to Kentucky after racing a string of horses there last summer. The higher level of competition made him consider a permanent relocation of his stable from the Bowie training center.
Purses fattened with slots money kept him in Maryland, and word of the 10-year deal and long-sought stability restored his faith in racing here, he said. Now he's waiting for the new funding to filter through to Pimlico.
Kobiskie is training about 40 horses at Pimlico for this meet. He has yet to decide whether he will relocate to Laurel or Pimlico when Bowie closes in the coming years, but is leaning toward the Baltimore facility because he prefers its track surface. But the outspoken former Marine also is waiting to see whether the Jockey Club delivers on its promises.
"On both sides of the track, there's so much to be done," he said from Pimlico's tiny track kitchen. "The barns here aren't bad, but there aren't enough and they haven't been well-kept. The living quarters are ridiculous. You've got to treat people right.
"They want to rejuvenate the game here, and the money is going to bring in big trainers and better horses and more gamblers," he said. "But those trainers, they better see a classy operation. They better feel that their people and horses are being treated well, or it means nothing."
John Cox, a brand ambassador for America's Best Racing, has spent most of the year on a bus tour aimed at drawing young people to the sport. He spent the weekend in Baltimore, attending Opening Day at Camden Yards on Friday and the races at Pimlico on Saturday.
"Young people want a place where they can feel comfortable, where they aren't intimidated," he said. "They want a place where they can be surrounded by other young people and have a good time. Tracks need to provide that feel."
Cox said Gulfstream Park, a Florida property owned by Stronach, "has literally something for everyone of all ages," and should serve as a model for other tracks. Future plans for Laurel call for a retail mall and restaurant area like the one at Gulfstream.
"From what we saw, there's a lot of potential with the people in Maryland," Cox said. "Having [Under Armour founder] Kevin Plank involved," as the owner of the Sagamore Farm breeding and training facility in Glyndon, "definitely helps and makes it cool. They all know Preakness and what a party it is. If they can carry over some of that excitement, they'll hit on something special."
For now, Chuckas' focus is on building the new barns, both at Laurel and Pimlico. Appeasing the horsemen and creating an environment conducive to competitive racing with full fields has to be his priority, he said, as bettors here and elsewhere continue to be a primary source of revenue.
Capturing a slice of the Preakness party spirit, bringing it to the grandstand and also creating the sort of environment that could attract families as well as die-hard bettors is a more complicated undertaking.
"It all started with the 10-year deal," Chuckas said. "That made it possible. But we've still got to figure out what exactly we want to do and how we're going to try to do it here."
Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.
Besides Preakness-week festivities, the Northwest Baltimore race course is offering the following events during the spring meet.
April 13: Racing 101 class
April 20-21: Decanter Wine Festival
April 27: Piece of the Past giveaway
May 4: Derby Day Triple Crown party
May 12: Mother's Day champagne brunch
June 1: Latin food, drink and music festival
June 8: Brew and Bourbon ClassicCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun