Sparse crowds greeted Friday's opening day meet for the live horse racing season at Laurel Park.
The glass-enclosed grandstand, with aging yellow and orange stadium-style seats, was hot and nearly deserted. A smattering of fans watched races from a patio dotted with metal benches and picnic tables; others camped out in the air conditioning inside where banks of old tube-style TV screens showed races from across the country — Louisiana Downs, Finger Lakes, Monticello, Gulf Stream.
Brad Garver sipped a beer and checked the racing forms before making his bets. Over the years he's gone to the track with his buddies, and he's watched beer prices go up and facilities decline.
"All we want to do is have a good time. We want to them to appreciate our business," said Garver, 59, an Eldersburg resident.
As they've promised for years, officials with the Maryland Jockey Club — which runs Laurel, Pimlico in Baltimore and a training center in Bowie — say improvements are on the way. As Laurel, which first opened in 1911, greeted a new season, president Tom Chuckas said the club will announce long-term plans for all three properties this fall.
"All our properties are in need of renovations and modifications," Chuckas said. "What are those renovations? What are those modifications? That's the question.
"And: How much is it going to cost?"
The Maryland Jockey Club and parent company Stronach Group are in discussions about the future of all three properties, Chuckas said. Over the years, promises have been made about coming improvements at Laurel and Pimlico, and there have been plans to close the Bowie center and move those operations to Laurel.
One prior plan for Laurel Park included a new grandstand and 10-story hotel, two parking garages, more than a dozen multistory commercial buildings and a new backstretch with dozens of barns, dorms and a canteen for workers.
Now, all bets are off and everything's back on the table, Chuckas said.
Those plans for Laurel depended on securing a license for slot machines, Chuckas said. They were drafted before 2009, when the club failed to pay a multimillion-dollar application deposit and lost the chance to bid for slots. Instead, the slots license for the area went to the Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills a few miles up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Still, the state sets aside a portion of slot machine profits to fatten purses for race winners at the tracks and for improving the facilities. To date, nearly $30 million has gone into the racetrack renewal fund, but that money must be matched dollar for dollar by the tracks.
Chuckas would not say how much the Jockey Club is prepared to invest in renovations. "Finding a benchmark for what's doable is part of the discussion," he said.
Even as new plans are being discussed for Laurel Park, the Jockey Club is in the midst of a legal tussle with the Anne Arundel County government over its old proposal.
That redevelopment plan received preliminary approval from county zoning officials in 2008, and the county granted the club an allocation for the water and sewer service it would need. The project languished, but a bill reserving that future service came due in 2013.
Jockey Club officials balked at the $11.9 million bill. When they didn't pay, the county put Laurel Park on its tax sale list this summer — a process that can lead to foreclosure.
The club secured a temporary restraining order against the tax sale and put up a $1.9 million bond while the issue is hammered out. It appealed the bill to the county Board of Appeals, and hearings are ongoing.
County officials say the figures were fair, and were based on numbers provided by the club itself back in 2008.
"That's the number they asked for, so that's what we allocated," said assistant county attorney Kelly Kenney.
While the case plays out, county economic development officials say they would welcome any improvements at Laurel.
The surrounding land on Laurel-Fort Meade Road and Brock Bridge Road has been designated as a county revitalization area, a step that allows businesses to receive zero-interest loans and tax credits for improving their properties, according to Mary Burkholder, executive vice president of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp.
Laurel Park sits outside the zone and isn't eligible for the loans and credits. Still, county officials see redevelopment of Laurel as the spark that could boost economic activity.
"It would be a plus for the community, especially if it involved creating jobs," Burkholder said.
Thomas Kupfer rode horses at Laurel and other tracks as a jockey for 20 years. Now living in Rehoboth Beach, Del., he's a horse owner and comes to Laurel to see his entries and catch up with old racing friends.
He thinks horsemen and fans deserve a better experience at Laurel, but he understands the challenge of luring new fans.
"Now you gotta keep up with all this other stuff," said Kupfer, ticking off casinos, online gambling and sports betting.
Promotions that incorporate teaching new fans about how to read racing forms and make bets might help, Kupfer said.
"Either that," he said, "or have open bar all day."
The track is attempting to lure new patrons. "Racing 101 Day at the Races" on Sept. 20 is an event offering a behind-the-scenes look at horse racing, and the track's online calendar lists weekend promotions such as a "Brew and Bourbon" event on Sept. 13 and Oktoberfest next month.
Brian McFarlane, 59, a nursing agency owner who was among the opening day crowd, said the advantage Laurel Park has over other gambling venues or betting on races at home is that fans can see the horses in person.
Still, he lamented, "I don't think they're doing a lot to draw people. The quality of the facility is zero."
Lyle Rescott and John Upman leaned on the white picket fence near the winner's circle watching races. Both retired from Northrop Grumman, they're weekly regulars at the track during the season.
"I like the racing. I'm retired and you've got to have something to do," said Upman, 69, of Catonsville.
"It's cheap entertainment," said Rescott, 67, of Marriottsville. "You can spend $2 or $10 or whatever you want to spend and be entertained."
Rescott thinks the track needs an upgrade. He pointed to the giant video board in the infield, which usually shows the featured race and statistics. It was blank. Then he pointed up to the soaring and empty grandstand.
"They have plenty of room here to do something," he said.