Willie Kee could not bring himself to join the chorus of acclaim for a new plan to rebuild Maryland’s aged racetracks. Instead, the 60-year-old horse trainer thought about traffic, specifically the daily drive he might have to make from Pikesville to Laurel if the plan passes muster in the General Assembly.
“Have you been on the Beltway in the morning?” he said in a weary tone.
Though the plan — forged by Baltimore and racing industry leaders, and released Saturday — would secure the future of the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course and create a consolidated training center at Laurel Park, it did not inspire unanimous praise among Maryland horsemen. Some of those who train horses at Pimlico year-round feel vexed by the prospect of a forced move to Laurel.
“We’re still going to have to get out and move to Laurel,” said Kee, who’s based his operation at Pimlico since 2001. “You ask anybody here and it’s the same deal as it was before. We’ve all got to get out of here.”
If the plan receives approval from the General Assembly, the existing backstretch at Pimlico — home to more than 100 trainers, stable hands and exercise riders — would be demolished in a few years. Some horsemen and workers could be asked to make temporary moves to Timonium or Bowie while construction proceeds on the 1,584-stall training center planned for Laurel Park.
Kee said it would be enough to make him consider moving his eight-horse barn to Pennsylvania or West Virginia. The Pikesville resident dreads the prospect of sitting in Beltway traffic to Laurel 365 days a year. And he’s skeptical that Laurel Park can accommodate all the displaced horsemen.
Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA), represented the local industry in negotiating the plan. He acknowledged the concerns of Pimlico-based trainers, but said upgrades at Laurel, including modernized stalls and a Tapeta-surfaced training track, would create a net positive for most. Tapeta is a synthetic track surface that’s usable in all weather conditions.
“We have briefed the boards of the Maryland thoroughbred horsemen and the horse breeders, and they’re unanimously in support,” Foreman said. “Obviously, it’s a challenge for some of those from northern Baltimore County who are used to going to Pimlico. … But it’s the notion of the Tapeta surface, what that means. It’s going to be a lot easier to train at Laurel than it would be if we had just a turf and a dirt course. That makes it appealing to them, among other things.”
Kee said the additional training track would make Laurel more palatable, but noted the board members of the horsemen’s association are based at Laurel and Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton. He said Pimlico-based horsemen have largely been shut out of the discussion.
“They’re talking about changing our lives,” Kee said. “And we haven’t even been asked, ‘What do you think about this?’ ”
“I fully see their point,” said Ferris Allen, a founding MTHA board member who lives in Clarksville and bases his operation at Laurel Park.
Allen, 68, said he could envision the plan “moving around quite a bit” and potentially accommodating full-time stalls at Pimlico. But even if training is entirely consolidated at Laurel, he said most Pimlico-based horsemen would make the move.
“If that’s what you’ve got to do, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Allen said, noting he’s alternated between Laurel, Pimlico, Timonium and Bowie during his 40-year run in Maryland.
Meanwhile, he said the plan would accomplish two vital objectives by modernizing the barns and living facilities at Laurel Park while keeping the Preakness in Baltimore.
“I think it’s wonderfully amazing that this many components of government and the racing industry could put their heads together to work through this problem,” he said. “What’s happened over a number of years is that both facilities have lagged behind the renovations necessary to keep the industry thriving. Pretty much everything in this plan is needed to keep things moving decently forward, and I’m amazed the sausage came out looking so sensible.”
Fellow MTHA board member Katharine Voss agreed the plan would accomplish much by keeping both tracks operational — Pimlico as a big-event venue and Laurel as a day-to-day center for the racing industry.
Voss, who’s trained for 50 years and owns a farm in West Friendship, said in an ideal world, horsemen such as Kee would remain stabled at Pimlico.
“I don’t like this setup where we’re all going to be at Laurel,” she said. “But from an economic standpoint, as far as the industry going forward, I’m not sure we have any better choices.”
Maryland Racing Commission chairman Michael Algeo declined to comment Saturday. But the plan prompted ecstatic reactions from other corners of the industry.
“It’s like I was dreaming it and then there it was,” said Mike Pons, a past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “It validates so many things for the horse industry here in Maryland. … I’m really tickled for Baltimore. The Ravens got M&T [Bank Stadium] and the Orioles got Camden Yards and now, a new home for the Preakness. I can’t wait for what could happen at the new Pimlico.”
Pons, who co-owns Country Life Farm in Harford County with his brother, Josh, said the plan could make Maryland second only to New York as an East Coast racing center.
Asked if he had any reservations, he pointed to the elimination of year-round training at Pimlico.
“Pimlico is a very valuable resource for our industry,” Pons said. “There are guys in southern Pennsylvania and the northern part of Maryland who drive to Pimlico to use that track, with very good horses. To lose that as a training facility would be very difficult and hard to replace.”
Pons also lamented the planned realignment of the track at Pimlico to accommodate surrounding development. A long list of renowned horses, led by Secretariat in the 1973 Preakness, have set records on the existing oval.
“I really hate to see it moved,” he said. “It’s one of the great racing surfaces. But in the big picture, I’m just so tickled that they took a step back and said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ ”