Baltimore Sun

Track plan draws critics

Ambitious plans by the owners and operators of Laurel Park to renovate the dowdy Anne Arundel County horse track are prompting criticism from elected officials and local homeowners, some of whom worry that a renovated track could cause environmental and security problems.

Magna Entertainment Corp. and the Maryland Jockey Club are looking to build a clubhouse and spacious training center with 41 barns, more than 1,400 stables, dormitories for workers and an overpass that would allow jittery thoroughbreds to cross a local road.

"The plans don't show a whole heck of a lot of vision," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a former Maryland Racing Commission member. Moyer said she is concerned that the proposed construction could lead to the destruction of wetlands and woods.

State racing commissioners have concerns of their own, including a basic lack of trust that track owners will keep their word and make much-needed improvements to the run-down and fetid stable area.

"I don't believe a word they said," racing Commissioner John B. Franzone said last week, referring to recent presentations by racetrack owners. "They claimed they would have 400 new horse stalls built by June [2004]. They'll be lucky if they have their building permits by then."

When Magna purchased controlling interest of the Maryland Jockey Club last year as part of a $117 million deal, the new owners promised to improve Laurel's stable area, which some racing commissioners refer to as "Third World." In addition to providing a space for trainers and grooms to work with horses, the stable area provides housing for some grooms.

Franzone said that if Magna doesn't make good on the promised renovations, commissioners could impose fines of up to $5,000 a day.

An official with the Maryland Jockey Club said Friday that racetrack owners are taking steps to mitigate health concerns in the stable area. Tim Capps, executive vice president of the club, also said that owners are eager to renovate Laurel Park, a 400-acre facility off Route 198, but are awaiting a final decision on the issue of slot machines at racetracks.

"Some changes are already under way," said Capps, referring to work to replace open manure pits with closed containers, repave roads, rewire stables and tack rooms and upgrade water lines. "What we've done is try to isolate projects that would be useful in the future, slots or no slots."

Capps said that if lawmakers agree to allow slots at the tracks to boost state revenues, plans to replace Laurel's clubhouse would kick into high gear. Preliminary plans show a new clubhouse south of the track and three new entrances. Six dormitories would be added and parking lots would be expanded to accommodate gambling patrons.

"If the slot machine legislation passes ... we really have to redo the entire facility," Capps said.

It is unclear how much an entire renovation of Laurel Park would cost. But racetrack owners are moving forward with plans to build a training facility on a wooded site next to the track, a project that could cost $46 million.

Capps said that he expects work to begin on new barns, including 1,400 or more stables, before the end of the year. He said that track owners hope to have the necessary building permits from Anne Arundel County by the end of November.

"At the moment, at least, our plans are to push ahead with the permitting and planning for the stables," Capps said. "Regardless of what happens with slots, we need that training facility."

Residents of the Laurel area, including communities in Howard and Prince George's counties, have lived with the racetrack for decades, and some say it is time for a facelift.

"We are a fan of the racetrack," said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association. "We have lived with it for 40 years, and it's time we start to get some movement in fixing things up. ... I don't think the traffic is going to kill us."

Smallwood said that racetrack officials, including Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. De Francis, have met with residents to discuss renovations and new construction. Smallwood said that most Maryland City residents endorse the plans.

However, not everyone is sold.

Moyer - a Democrat who served on the racing commission for eight years until this summer when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. replaced her with one of his own appointees - has called plans for the Laurel track "torturous to the environment."

She said that she worries track owners will destroy wetlands and woods to make room for a future slots emporium and an expanded training facility. She said it's up to state and local elected officials to demand better environmental planning from Magna, which also owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and a training facility in Bowie.

"Laurel Park should be a showcase," Moyer said. "It certainly has the potential to be that."

Tim Reyburn, president of the Russett Community Association Inc., said that residents who also have met with De Francis worry that slot machine gambling at Laurel Park could pose new security risks for homeowners. Reyburn said that residents could hire a security firm to guard against racetrack riffraff.

"Everything sounds good, and then reality sets in," Reyburn said. "At this point, it's hard to know what the problems will be, but there's always an upside and a downside."