The sun broke through the clouds early Saturday afternoon and provided a near-perfect autumn day at Laurel Park for the racing festival that has grown up around the Jim McKay Maryland Million.
If each one seems more and more like a junior Preakness with the big stage and the daylong concert taking place just beyond the clubhouse turn, that’s probably not a coincidence. It’s looking more and more like Laurel will be the future home of the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Not that it would be a huge surprise. Just about everything has been pointing in that direction for years. Next month, the Maryland Stadium Authority is expected to release its report on the feasibility of building a new Pimlico Race Course. But even if that’s the recommendation and there is significant public support for the project, it still might be a hard sell.
“We’re open-minded at this stage. … We really are,’’ said Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park. “We want to do things respectfully, because — I get it — there’s a lot of passion and history and that means something. I understand that.”
If you’re trying to read between those lines, it’s not necessary. Stronach and Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group’s chief operating officer for racing and gaming, continue to make the case that it is increasingly impractical to operate two racetracks in such close proximity.
“We’re waiting on the MSA study,’’ Ritvo said. “We want to see how that comes out. It’s supposed to be out after the election. And then we’ll study everything. No private company would have two racetracks as close to each other and invest similar money. It just doesn’t make good business sense.”
Stronach’s vision for the future of horse racing — both in Maryland and around the country — features “super tracks” like the company’s Gulfstream Park (Fla.) in both the Baltimore-Washington area and Southern California. From all outward indications, the one in Maryland will be in Laurel and will eventually host the Preakness.
Whether Stronach will get to see that vision become reality, however, might depend on the outcome of the lawsuit filed by her father, Frank — The Stronach Group’s patriarch — which presents a variety of complaints about her management of the company.
Though Stronach was reluctant to say much about the dispute in an interview Saturday, she and Ritvo presented a strong case for the financial health of the company’s racing and gaming component.
“The racing, gaming and entertainment company is in great shape,’’ Stronach said. “We have a great team. … When the family first took over this business in 2010, 2011, it was losing a lot of money. And Tim and [former chief executive officer] Alon Ossip and the operations team did an extraordinary job turning this company around in just a number of years.”
The lawsuit disputes that and seeks to remove Stronach from her positions of authority in the company while pursuing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
“I’m not really going to talk about the family dispute,’’ she said. “That’s kind of a matter that’s going to be, unfortunately, before the courts. I love my family. I always try to do what’s right for my family, but I also have to do what’s right for the company, and for me, those go hand in hand. It’s a very sad and unfortunate family situation and unfortunately it’s going to have to end up in court.”
In the meantime, the improvements to Laurel continue. The track has a new sports book that features a huge scoreboard-like television display. It will be fully operational whenever the state joins the rest of the country in legalizing sports gambling. The Stronach Group also is working on several other fronts to make Laurel a complete racing and entertainment site.
“I think anyone that has come here over the last couple of years sees the care, the investment, the reinvestment we’re putting into this venue, primarily because we believe in horse racing in Maryland,’’ Stronach said. “We continue to make these investments because it will strengthen our community, the horse-racing community in Maryland, so we’re really excited to be here today.”
That plan includes the “resurrection” of the former Bowie track as a state-of-the-art training complex and the upcoming start of construction on the first phase of her broader vision of a mixed-use environment around Laurel Park, which is being spearheaded by the company’s development guru, Bill Hecht.
Stronach envisions the mixed-use complex including a running trail around the racecourse and other residential amenities.
“That’s part of our philosophy,’’ she said. “State-of-the-art training center. State-of-the-art racing operation. Minimal footprint of the racing operation and then build a live, work and play ecosystem around the track, and that all should work in synergy. That’s the lens through which we’re putting things.”
The company’s attempt to modernize the sport also will reach right into the palm of your hand, where people will soon be able to access a betting tutorial, handicapping information and a virtual parimutuel window on their mobile phones.
“We’re focusing heavily on an enhanced digital experience, so that everybody will be able to wager on their mobile device, whether you’re a new bettor or an experienced bettor … and not just horse betting but also the sports betting,’’ she said. “So we’re looking at our company and all the various facets in terms of how we attract that new generation of fans, so we really can continue with the momentum that we’ve achieved to create an even more sustainable business.”
Stronach said the lawsuit and the company’s master plan are “two totally separate issues.” Ritvo stressed any claims that the racing and gaming division of the company is in financial distress are unsupportable.
“The racing and gaming is ring-fenced, where racing and gaming has done really well and has been very successful,’’ Ritvo said. “And the liquidity issues in racing and gaming don’t exist as reported. Racing and gaming has been very healthy.
“We’ve doubled the revenue. Parimutuel handle has doubled. Race days continue to improve. Those numbers trend in Maryland also. It’s not up as much as other entities, but they’re moving in the right direction. Racing and gaming is very healthy and it’s a big part of the family’s legacy.”