Some $7 million in improvements at Laurel Park, including two barns with 300 horse stalls, could be completed in the coming weeks.
The improvements will be the first of many that patrons can expect when the racetrack reopens in the fall, said Sal Sinatra, general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees operations at the park and the nearby Pimlico Race Course. In the fall, he said the park hopes to have family-friendly events with live entertainment every Friday night.
"I gotta get people back to our facility," he said. "Horse racing is a neat sport — you don't have to bet to enjoy it."
Both racetracks are owned and operated by the Stronach Group, which has other tracks in California and Florida. Many in the Maryland's horse racing community have been reinvigorated with the Stronach's commitment to grow the sport in the region, said Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association.
"Maryland is becoming one of the premier places to breed and own and race horses in the whole mid-Atlantic," he said.
In addition to the barns, a wash building containing restrooms for men and women and 20 outside wash stalls is under construction.
More than 150 flat screen TVs have already been installed and a new surveillance system is in the works.
The first barn could be completed by early next month, racetrack officials said.
Sinatra also said plans for a billiard room, arcade and owner's lounge at the facility are underway. Similar improvements are being completed at Pimlico, which will host the Preakness in May.
The move comes at a pivotal time for the Laurel racetrack and horse racing in general in Maryland. The racetrack is the middle of a lengthy legal dispute with Anne Arundel County for utility fees it was charged as the result of a redevelopment proposal.
In addition, after years in which spectators and horse racing operations were drawn to neighboring states like Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the sport is starting to see an in-state resurgence, said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission. Hopkins credited the renewed enthusiasm to state casino revenues.
Since fiscal 2011, when the state's first casino opened in Perryville, casinos have generated nearly $129 million for horse racing purses and breeders programs, Hopkins said.
That money has helped to increase the number of horses bred in the state.
In the last fiscal year, Maryland saw a 16 percent increase in the number of mares bred, Hopkins said.
The casino funds do not contribute directly to the tracks themselves. Racetracks have to spend at least $1.5 million each year to be eligible for 50 percent reimbursement grants from the state, Hopkins said.
With the opening of Baltimore's Horseshoe Casino last August, Hopkins predicted that this fiscal year's revenue to be $11 million to $12 million more than the $39 million generated in fiscal 2014.
The increase in casinos revenue and breeding has coincided with an increase in out-of-state wagering, Hopkins said.
Keefe noted that the horse racing industry has deep roots in Maryland and touches a wide array of products and services in the local economy — from jockeys and groomers to blacksmiths and farmers.
"We're now on an even playing field here in Maryland," Keefe said. "It's been like night and day."
Last month, the racetrack won a case before Anne Arundel Board of Appeals challenging how much it was charged to reserve water and sewer capacities. The county has since appealed the decision and the parties are scheduled to appear in Anne Arundel Circuit Court on May 11.
The dispute began in 2008, when an initial calculation on the redevelopment project showed that the racetrack owed $25 million in fees.
That amount was reduced to $11 million after existing water and sewer capacity was recalculated.
In ruling in favor of the racetrack, the appeals board noted that the county's records had "inaccuracies and inconsistencies," and called the calculations "wholly unreliable."
The racetrack almost lost the 289-acre property last June after its owners didn't pay $2 million in charges to keep the reservation. The racetrack was nearly sold to pay off its taxes, but a county judge ultimately blocked the sale.