ON THE POOR SIDE OF THE TRACK Pimlico deterioration a sign of racing's troubled times PREAKNESS '93


When Paul Mellon makes his way to the Preakness Stakes Barn to visit Sea Hero on Saturday, he will discover an oasis of landscaping beauty.

There, adjacent to the Stakes Barn, where Barn F used to be, is Pimlico's new walking ring. For use by horses entered in the Pimlico Special and Preakness, the ring is resplendent with its colorful new growth of flowers, shrubbery and young trees.

To get there, however, the owner of the Kentucky Derby winner will have to pass through the poor side of the track.

What Mellon will see on his journey to the Stakes Barn is a cluster of deteriorating wooden barns, wall after wall of peeling pink paint, rows of bowed roofs, aisles of twisted rain gutters and dozens of boarded-up windows.

"It's certainly not attractive," says John H. Mosner Jr., chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, in classic understatement.

It is a sign of troubled times at Pimlico and racetracks everywhere. Just as the horse racing industry tries to pull out of a depression, Pimlico is trying to lift itself out of its own spiral.

A $4.1 million backstretch improvements plan implemented two years ago had to be shelved when money ran out. Hundred-year-old barns that had been targeted for demolition still house horses. A drainage system infested with rats remains problematic. The barn area on the Hayward Avenue side of the track remains an eyesore.

"I'd like to say the only problem is peeling paint," said Lenny Hale, vice president for racing, who quickly adds that he knows better.

Hale was brought in last January by track president Joseph A. De Francis to help stem the flow of red on the balance sheet. There was no shortage of problems waiting for him.

"When I came here, I talked with Joe about a number of things," Hale said. "One was the perception of Maryland racing. Perception is not always reality. Still, the perception was that things here were shabby. The truth is, it's not that bad. A lot of places are worse."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The problems for Maryland racing run deep. It isn't just Pimlico that De Francis must wrestle with. It's Laurel and Bowie, as well.

"Management is providing three complete training centers," Mosner said. "Audited figures from last year show they're spending $1.6 million to keep the Bowie training center open. There's a lot of money spent to keep the three centers open."

Indeed, money is as short as tempers at Pimlico these days. There is an undercurrent of tension between track management and horsemen.

"These people don't want to spend money," trainer Bill Donovan says of management. "They'd like us to race for no purses."

Donovan said his people painted the front of his barn themselves after management supplied the paint. He also said he spent $180 for flowers and flower pots, and a grand total of $1,000 for barn improvements before last year's Preakness, in which he raced Dash for Dotty.

"The whole trouble is poor management," he said. "Joe is a very dedicated man. I love Joe. He's an excellent person. But he's being led by people who are not horsemen, and the only thing they read is the bottom line. . . . We need to build some camaraderie here between management and horsemen."

De Francis rebuts Donovan's charges, saying: "I'm not being led by anybody. I'll take full responsibility for everything that's bad and good [at Pimlico].

"I don't think it's fair criticism to say we're bottom-line-oriented, that the so-called bean-counters in our organization are not taking account of our horsemen's needs. I'd be willing to wager we spend a higher percent of gross revenues in the backstretch than any other racetrack in the country. The problem is, a huge chunk of it gets eaten up maintaining stables."

The stables are a sore subject among horsemen, including trainer Dick Small. On a short, walking tour of his dilapidated barn, Small points out some problems. There are quarter-inch plywood boards inside some stalls instead of the traditional solid wood, and one plywood board already has been chewed through by one of his horses. His roof sags badly in one spot, and old paint is peeling off the barn's exterior in blotches everywhere.

Small's strongest complaint, though, has to do with Fox Brush, the horse who was electrocuted in the starting gate April 1, when it bumped against an electrical cord that was lying in water. An exercise rider was nearly killed in the accident.

"There was absolutely no excuse for it," Small said.

"We are evaluating any potential for serious injury at that location," said Craig Lowry, chief of Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance services. "We have found some areas of concern. The incident itself indicates there is a problem."

There are no easy solutions for Pimlico, but there is possible relief. The track could get a financial boost from three new programs -- simulcasting, off-track betting and inter-track wagering. If so, that improvement program of two years ago could lurch into action.

De Francis' long-term goal is to keep the Stakes Barn where it is, and to relocate the rest of the stables in Pimlico's modern barn area along Pimlico Road.

"I think the ultimate solution lies in building new barns on the Pimlico Road side and ultimately closing down the Hayward side," De Francis said. "We're anxious to do that. The problem you run into is the expenditure to build the new barns, maintain three separate facilities and ship horses back and forth, which is something the racetrack pays for."

For now, Hale will chip away at the problems on a priority basis. Barn F recently was knocked down and the eye-catching walking ring built in its place. Hale said improvements are being made at four barns at Laurel, and "one or two" at Bowie.

"There will not be a quick fix," he said. "We want to get stables back the way we want. We want to get racing back the way we want. But you can't ask a stable to come into a barn that needs major repair."

Track management and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association will share costs for a $4,000 study of the problems.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the MTHA, said a rebound by Pimlico will take time and patience as well as money.

"The long-term plans are to tear down the wooden barns," he said. "We'd all like to see other things being done. But why fix up the ones that are still there when you know they'll be tearing them down?

"Is it the way we like it? No. Are they moving in the right direction? Yeah."

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