Laurel opens its doors to change; With racing as backdrop, renovations under way


Laurel Park's opening today signals what could become an extensive renovation of the state's two major thoroughbred tracks.

The Maryland Jockey Club has launched its massive improvement project at the Laurel track even as it prepares for its second biggest day, the 14th annual Maryland Million on Saturday.

Opening-day patrons as well as the 20,000 expected for the Maryland Million will find renovations under way inside and outside the state's most-used thoroughbred track.

"We had a choice: Don't start anything or be a little crowded on Maryland Million day," said Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. "Hopefully, our fans will understand We want to show we're committed to revitalizing this industry."

At the behest of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, De Francis unveiled a $60 million improvement plan this summer that will result in major renovations at Pimlico and Laurel Park during the next five years.

De Francis was under pressure to begin upgrading the tracks because Glendening has insisted on action. He has threatened to withhold aid to horse racing if De Francis does not follow through on his plan.

"This is part one," De Francis said.

Patrons driving to Laurel Park today will confront reconfigured traffic patterns and parking lots. Some parking will be free.

Inside, the Sports Palace has been closed. Plans calls for its transformation within six months into a banquet hall for private functions and family and children's events, including the Pony Pals club.

De Francis said that the Sports Palace, a once-grand betting room, will be replaced by numerous simulcast theaters throughout the track.

One will be ready today on the first floor of the clubhouse. Others will be constructed in the clubhouse and grandstand, De Francis said.

"The biggest challenge is trying to marry the needs of a live racetrack with today's customer who wants to watch and wager on multiple simulcast signals," De Francis said.

"We've spent literally hundreds of hours working on these plans. We've revised them only about 6,000 times."

De Francis and his associates, especially Marty Azola, vice president of facilities, have other plans on the drawing board, including turning the Silks Room into a smoking room with a "clubby atmosphere," transforming the International Room into a restaurant with no TVs that would attract non-gambling diners at night, expanding and upgrading the Members Club, turning the Sky Suite into a private room for big bettors and enlarging Long Shots bar.

Those are the near-term plans. Long-term plans include new entrances, landscaping, more simulcast theaters, a park-like setting called Maryland Million Village and transformation of the Ruffian Room into an upscale simulcast theater.

De Francis said he also intends to expand the racing surface by building a chute on the far side of the first turn so that one-turn, one-mile races could be run. That would entail relocating the finish line one-sixteenth mile toward the first turn.

De Francis said his company would spend more than $2 million by the end of the year. Then, when the General Assembly convenes in January, he said he will lobby for his proposed -- and controversial -- 1.5 percent increase in the takeout on Pimlico and Laurel Park races.

That increase in the takeout -- money not returned to the bettors in the form of payoffs -- would fund $27.5 million of the $60 million improvement plan.

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