LAUREL — Julia Oughton walked into Laurel Park’s Ruffian Room on Tuesday a skeptic.
Over the three decades she had spent in the Mid-Atlantic since a move from her native England, Oughton, 58, of Lothian, had heard of several proposals like the one that came to light this weekend that would keep the Preakness in Baltimore. But at the end of the two-hour forum hosted by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association to discuss the plan for redevelopment at Pimlico and Laurel Park, the former trainer and current program developer for the Retired Racehorse Project found herself buying into the plan.
“They have a plan to finance it, and they have a plan to help,” Oughton said. “That area at Pimlico is a sad place.
“The idea of turning Pimlico into Royal Ascot, I’m like a dog with two tails. I think it’s marvelous.”
Alan Foreman, general counsel for the MTHA who represented the state’s thoroughbred industry in the four months of talks to come up with the $375.5 million plan, recognized that there were critics among the scores in attendance Tuesday. Among their frustrations was a feeling of being left out of the non-disclosed conversations Foreman, city representative William H. Cole and Alan Rifkin, who represented the Maryland Jockey Club, had in putting the plan together.
“It’s not perfect [but] we think it’s fabulous,” Foreman said. “There are no secrets in racing, as they say. Well, this one was kept, and that’s why you were all blindsided.”
During the presentation, the three of them discussed the changes the proposal would include for Pimlico and Laurel Park, including rotating the oval at Pimlico 30 degrees and potentially changing the length of the course, several changes to enable year-round usage of the facility, and moving all of the area’s training and stable operations to Laurel Park.
Although the last of those concerns has been a negative for trainers who operate out of Pimlico, the first was the primary talking point Tuesday, with several attendees asking about the removal of Pimlico’s history during a question-and-answer session after the presentation.
Rifkin, who also was heavily involved in the creation of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, said he thought every effort would be made to preserve history despite the alterations. The architectural changes were designed by Kansas City-based Populous, which also designed Oriole Park.
“Yankees Stadium got moved across the street; it’s not in the same location as when Babe Ruth played there, but it’s every bit Yankee Stadium,” Rifkin said. “This is going to be every bit Pimlico.”
Later, he added: “Sometimes, our history and our legacy stands in the way of our future. I’d like to incorporate our history and our legacy and make it our future.”
Willie White, 65 of Clarksville, is an owner whose horses train at Laurel Park and is the former president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. He said he understands why some would be concerned about the changes, but that they appear to be needed.
“You’ve got to be innovative in this industry to survive, and it’s time for us to take a hard look at where we are,” White said. “When people first thought about getting rid of Memorial Stadium, there was a real fit, but no one would give up Camden Yards to have Memorial Stadium, and I think the same thing can happen with Pimlico.”
While Laurel Park is under construction, Cole said all live racing could be shifted to Pimlico for 10 to 14 months, while Timonium and Bowie training facilities could also be put to use throughout the process.
Whether it reaches that stage depends on whether legislation for the plan passes through the General Assembly next year. Rifkin encouraged attendees to support the legislation, which has yet to be drafted but will be called the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020.
Oughton, who temporarily left the industry after the stock market crash of 2008, said her time “out of the bubble” helped her see how much need the horse racing industry was in. She views the plan as an opportunity to bring not only Maryland, but the industry forward.
“I think people inside the industry are sometimes unaware that they need to make a dramatic change and jump on this and run with it,” she said. “It’s a triple win. It’s good for us. It’s good the horses. It’s good for the community.”
The creators of the plan think that’s what’s most important, despite the critiques.
“The search for the perfect is often the demise of many a project,” Rifkin said. “This isn’t a search for the perfect. It’s a search for the best.”