Citing a horse shortage and a need to cut costs, Maryland thoroughbred track management told Baltimore-area horsemen yesterday that Pimlico Race Course will be closed to training for three months starting Dec. 1.
The track will reopen March 1, about three weeks before the opening of the Pimlico spring meet.
The track will remain open for simulcasting during that time. While Pimlico is closed to training, sweeping renovations, such as leveling the Hayward Avenue barn area and replacing it with an outdoor paddock in a parklike setting behind the grandstand, could be made, said Laurel/Pimlico track president Joe De Francis.
"I want to turn what's now an eyesore into an asset. I don't know about landscaping or the specifics of that kind of project, but I'd like to create a park in an inner-city setting, sort of what they have behind the grandstand at Saratoga, and keep the Preakness Barn intact because it's a tourist attraction," he said.
Jim Peterson, Laurel/Pimlico's chief financial officer, is in charge of making capital improvements, and the final decision is up to him, De Francis added.
Peterson said he discussed those plans with De Francis earlier this week. "I haven't gotten the numbers yet, and I don't know if we can do all of that in one year," Peterson said. "But if we can't do it all, we can start. We really need to improve the appearance of Pimlico and make it a showcase for the Preakness."
When asked if bulldozers could start to work on the project Dec. 1, Peterson replied, "I sure hope so."
If most or part of the old barn area is torn down, additional barns would be added on the Pimlico Road side of the track.
De Francis said that by closing Pimlico for the winter, estimates made two years ago put the savings at $500,000.
Peterson said, "That's a conservative figure.
"It costs about $600,000 a month, or a little less than that, to keep each of these three tracks open. That sounds like a tremendous figure, and it is sort of unbelievable. But we spend something like $40 million a year on materials, salaries and maintenance. No one realizes how big a business this really is," he added.
Peterson said that by shutting Pimlico for three months, "We'll save on electricity, heating and water costs as well as what's involved in maintaining the racing surface. Believe me, it is going to be a significant savings."
Though the tracks are operating in the black after losing $7.2 million last year, De Francis said savings need to be made "to keep us on semi-solid financial ground."
Lenny Hale, Laurel/Pimlico vice president of racing, addressed about 75 horse owners and trainers in the Triple Crown Room at the track yesterday and told them that because of the number of horses leaving Pimlico and Laurel to race at southern tracks this winter, there is enough space to accommodate their animals at Laurel and Bowie.
Hale said there are 511 horses stabled at Pimlico and 223 empty stalls. With 78 horses leaving Pimlico to head south and about 30 more going to the farm, Hale said there will be roughly 400 horses left at Pimlico for the winter.
"That means with 400 horses at Pimlico and 75 new ones shipping into Maryland from out-of-state tracks, we'll have to fit 475 horses into Laurel and Bowie. By my calculations, we'll have 598 empty stalls there by mid-November, so it can be done," Hale said.
Hale added that dormitories for stable workers who want to remain at Pimlico for the winter will remain open. "And we'll provide transportation for them to Laurel and Bowie," he said. "But right now, it doesn't seem that too many people fit into that category."
About 130 people live in the Pimlico stable area. Some of them will go with their stables to Laurel or Bowie.
Although there is no sense that horsemen plan to boycott entries or leave the state, most trainers "are either upset or depressed," said Jon Davison, whose grandfather, Ben Cohen, formerly owned Pimlico. Davison is a trainer with five horses.
"Most of us here are fringe people, and if you take a little bit from us here, and a little bit from us there and make it too hard for us to stay in business, then we are going to be pushed out of the industry," Davison said.
At the meeting, Hale told the horsemen that part of the long-range plan, now that Laurel and Pimlico are tied in with the proposed Colonial Downs track in the Richmond, Va., area, is to close the Bowie Training Center.
However, De Francis said yesterday, "We're analyzing data, and no decision has been made in that area."