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Promised Pimlico changes too slow out of the gate?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two years ago, Joseph A. De Francis unveiled sweeping plans to overhaul Pimlico Race Course and equip it with the amenities fans have come to expect at modern sports venues.

But the thousands who swarmed to the aging track last week for the 126th running of the Preakness Stakes saw little evidence of change.

They might have noticed new siding on some of the barns, and a sort of faux-wrought iron where chain-link fences topped with barbed wire once stood. But the park-like entry plaza, the glitzy clubhouse with food court and the "interactive fan education center" exist only on paper - while millions of dollars of state bond money to pay for improvements remains unclaimed.

Preakness Day 2001 was unquestionably a success, with a record crowd and record handle and no major glitches to mar the pageantry. The lack of visible progress on the promised rehabilitation of Pimlico, however, is one of many signs that Maryland racing is in big trouble.

The long-suffering industry - surrounded by competition that uses slot-machine profits to draw the best horses, beset with declining profits and all but paralyzed by infighting - is facing perhaps its deepest crisis yet.

"We're in a very bad cycle," said John B. Franzone, chairman of the state racing commission. "Worst I've seen."

Three years ago, a power outage on Preakness Day humiliated Maryland racing and highlighted Pimlico's dilapidation. Now, De Francis, president of the company that operates the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks, says that $10 million worth of groundwork has been laid for imminent, more visible improvements.

"It is extremely frustrating - extremely frustrating - for me and for everyone involved in this process to have put as much work as we've put into this program and to be at a stage now where everyone is saying ... 'Gee, we thought we'd see more by now,'" De Francis said.

He says his company will be ready by the end of this month to push ahead with renovation plans.

His critics say they'll believe him when they see work begin.

Things are so bad that Maryland racing is enduring a dressing down from the very lawmakers who cite the $1 billion-a-year industry's crucial role in the state's heritage and economy.

After the state legislature decided this year to end a $10 million subsidy for racing purses, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. described the act with two words: "tough love."

At the time, legislators said their decision stemmed from frustration over the industry's failure to move ahead on plans to expand off-track betting facilities and launch telephone wagering, and by the thoroughbred and harness factions' inability to agree on a long-term plan for handling simulcast signals and splitting up profits.

To that list, Taylor adds another issue: Track owners have not taken advantage of a state-sanctioned bond program designed to provide more than $40 million to help pay for improvements at Pimlico and other Maryland racetracks.

"This is a program that the industry asked us for, and we gave it to them," Taylor said. "It's very frustrating to know that we in the state continue to bend over backward to try to help an industry that isn't helping itself."

Another key lawmaker, House Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, said she was surprised that De Francis has not yet applied for money through the bond program.

"We would have certainly thought that by this time something concrete would have happened," she said.

Many in the industry are equally mystified.

"There are a lot of people waiting and asking questions as to why it hasn't happened," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "We really don't know."

Improved facilities, while not a guarantee of future industry health, are one way the sport can help itself, many in racing say. Look what happened when the Orioles moved to Camden Yards, says industry players.

"In today's marketplace, you can't expect new fans to come to facilities that are not attractive, not appealing and not the kind of place you want to spend the day," said Alan M. Foreman, a lawyer for the state's horsemen's association.

That's why, they say, the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel Park, must move ahead to revamp the facilities as entertainment destinations for casual fans.

And that, De Francis says, is just what is going to happen.

He says his many critics are mistaken in saying little progress has been made in rehabbing Pimlico and Laurel Park. He says the Jockey Club has spent more than $10 million on the two tracks since 1999 on "infrastructure" that must precede more visible improvements.

"The money's out the door, and it's going into doing all this groundwork that needs to be done to lay the foundation for the other improvements that are going to be pretty and striking and dramatic. And when people walk into the facility, they're going to 'ooh' and 'ahh.' ... But we're not to that point yet."

He said he plans to meet by the end of the month with officials from the Maryland Economic Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that has been authorized to sell bonds to help finance $60 million in planned improvements at Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft, a harness track in Prince George's County.

Under a complicated financing arrangement, the money to pay off the bonds would come from bettors, mostly through an increase in the "takeout," the track's profit from betting pools. Some is to come from a state account funded in part by uncashed pari-mutuel tickets - with other state tax and lottery money used to replenish that account.

To get the bond money, the Jockey Club must show that it has spent at least $9.5 million on improvements, and its construction plans must be reviewed by the Maryland Stadium Authority and approved by the racing commission.

Hans F. Mayer, executive director of MEDCO, said that if the Jockey Club begins the process this month and plans are approved, his agency could begin selling bonds by next fall. Club officials said this spring that they might ask that more than $20 million worth of bonds be sold, Mayer said.

There is little disagreement that Pimlico, to be generous, is showing its age. Built in 1870, the historic track's last major renovation was in 1954.

Under the grandstand, lines of teller windows face a dreary expanse of scuffed floor tiles of the sort seen in old elementary schools. A small concession stand sells hot dogs and beer.

The barns behind the grandstand received new siding this year because the wood was too old to take any more paint. It's easy to see why a new outdoor paddock is planned: The current indoor one is squeezed between the grandstand and the clubhouse, meaning few bettors can watch as the horses are saddled.

The deterioration of the track became impossible to ignore on May 16, 1998. As the racing world converged on Pimlico to see whether Real Quiet could match his Kentucky Derby triumph (he did), the power in much of Pimlico went out - and stayed out for most of the afternoon.

A year later, in response to demands from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and state lawmakers, the Jockey Club submitted a master plan that included $18 million to rehabilitate Pimlico and nearly $17 million in improvements to Laurel Park, along with a pledge to spend more than $12 million on marketing and another $5 million off-track betting parlors.

Under the plan, the barns now behind Pimlico's grandstand would be razed to make way for the new paddock, which fans could view from a new amphitheater and terrace. Across the track, a horsemen's complex would be built with modern dormitories and a 60-stall stakes barn designed to attract premier race events.

In announcing the plan, De Francis said the Jockey Club would pay for about half of the $60 million project, with the balance financed by a diversion from winnings paid to bettors.

In the 2000 General Assembly session, the industry lobbied for, and received, approval of a bill setting up the bond sales. At the same time, conditions at Pimlico became an issue again as city officials threatened to take the track to court to force it to correct fire code violations in time for the Preakness.

De Francis points to the work done to meet the fire code - including new stairways leading to the clubhouse, grandstand and upper-level press box - as some of the less than glamorous, but essential work that his company has paid for.

Why hasn't more been done?

Mayer, the MEDCO official, said that even if the Jockey Club had asked, his agency wasn't in a position to sell bonds last fall because he had to resolve technical problems raised by language in the legislation authorizing them. But those problems, he said, were overcome early this year.

De Francis said the Jockey Club is only now prepared to apply for the bond money because the first five months of the year were consumed by attending to the General Assembly session and preparing to stage the Preakness.

But some in government and in the racing business speculate that De Francis has been dragging his feet to position himself to renew his argument that Maryland racing needs an injection of revenue from slot machines.

Glendening has foreclosed any possibility that slots could be approved before he leaves office in January 2003. But with legislative committees examining gambling issues, the issue of slots and racing seems likely to be fought again.

Franzone, a fierce critic who calls the Jockey Club's management of the tracks "lousy," said: "My opinion is the Maryland Jockey Club is just doing what they've got to do ... to deflect criticism and wait for the big bonanza, slots."

Asked to comment, De Francis smiled and said, "That is absolutely and utterly ridiculous." He said forgoing bond proceeds in hopes of revenues from slot machines would be like a drowning man passing up a chance to be saved by a sailboat in hopes that a yacht might show up.

"If we weren't dead serious about this program, you can rest assured we could have thought of other things to do with that $10 million than plow them into these buildings," he said. "We're ready to move forward."

Critics such as Franzone remain skeptical. "That's typical of what they always say. They're always loaded in the starting gate, but they never break from the gate."

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