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Horse Racing

With future of Preakness foggy, commission focuses on improving Maryland horse racing

To hear Preakness organizers and the owners of Maryland's Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks tell it, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown is only one piece, albeit an important one, of the state's broader racing culture.

Perhaps that is why discussions of the race's future at Pimlico, which dominated the days before Saturday's 140th Preakness and those that followed, were wholly absent from Tuesday's monthly meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission at Pimlico Race Course.

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"These discussions [about the Preakness] are just getting revved up," said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park. "Take them serious, though. I listen to the pundits [say], 'Oh, this has been talked about. This has been talked about,' but [Stronach Group founder and honorary chairman] Frank Stronach is a doer.

"He wants to save [racing in Maryland]. He wants it to operate in perpetuity for the next 25 years, and the only way we can do that is to put a good financial model in place that works."

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In place of those discussions Tuesday, Ritvo and Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra updated the commission on racing improvements that have increased revenue at Pimlico and could do the same this year at Laurel Park.

All were well received by the committee and horsemen in attendance, who said track ownership and Preakness leadership have brought harmony and success at the tracks that were missing for decades.

A record crowd of 131,680 attended the Preakness on Saturday, with the betting handle of $85.161 million ranking sixth-highest all-time. Black-Eyed Susan Day drew an $18 million betting handle, about a $7 million jump from 2014 and the best figure in a decade.

Overall, betting handles are up a half-million dollars per day at Pimlico for the spring meet, which began April 2, thanks to more turf races and an average of just over one more horse in the field for every race compared with last year. That has represented a $10 million year-to-year increase for comparable days, Ritvo said.

Similar focuses on turf racing, and a proposed shift of racing days from November and December to July and August weekends at Laurel Park could boost revenues there as well. Those added summer weekends could feature Friday twilight racing with bands, free food or admission and family entertainment, Sinatra said.

That entertainment model fits what the Stronach Group did at Gulfstream Park in Florida, though the fruits of that were largely realized by a full track rebuild.

"I can't emphasize enough how much corporate focus is on [racing in] Maryland and making it spectacular," Ritvo told the board. "As good as we are, we want to make it better."

After the meeting, he said the only way to go from good to great is "consolidation." That might be difficult given the Preakness' tradition, plus the 1987 legislation that requires the Preakness to run at Pimlico, barring an emergency or disaster at the track.

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Laurel's larger footprint, plus structural limitations that prevent building onto Pimlico, mean the Anne Arundel County track would be best suited as the flagship track were the Preakness not involved.

Ritvo said the Preakness might be kept at Pimlico with a limited racing schedule around it, complemented by a revamped Laurel Park.

"But the idea, for us, is not just about a spectacular Preakness two-day event," he said. "We've got to keep the place healthy all year round."

Before the meeting, Maryland Racing Commission executive director Mike Hopkins said there's discussion about the futures of both tracks and the Preakness.

Though it wasn't explicitly acknowledged during the meeting, Maryland Racing Commission chairman Bruce Quade said the Stronach Group has been forthright about its plan to examine all possibilities. Ritvo said, "It's not like we're leaving in the middle of the night and running out of here."

"There's a lot of publicity bouncing around about moving the Preakness, not moving the Preakness," Quade said after the meeting. "They, corporately, have said they're looking at all options. They're looking at all scenarios. There's no conspiracy afoot to all of a sudden yank the Preakness out of Baltimore. That would be folly. I've taken them at their word.

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"They've delivered on all the things they've said they're going to do the last couple of years, and I believe they're making long-term plans, analyses, and seeing what's best for everybody, best for racing."

Quade said the commission does, however, "believe there ought to be two tracks."

"I believe that the industry in Maryland, now that we've pulled ourselves out of the depths, will do the right thing and make the best decision," Quade said.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli


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