By John Scheinman
The Maryland Jockey Club will build a new clubhouse and grandstand at Laurel Park on the opposite side of the existing structures at the track, as well as knock down all existing barns and relocate new ones as part of a comprehensive capital improvement plan submitted Feb. 1 to the Maryland Racing Commission and state Office of Budget and Management.
The plan also calls for mixed-use retail development and a hotel to be built on the property, as The Stronach Group, which owns Laurel, will seek to emulate its project at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
While the plans are still in an early development stage, details that exist were released Feb. 5 as the 13-page document released to the commission and budget office was shared with the media. The plan had to be submitted to the two agencies by Feb. 1 in order to qualify for 50% matching funds from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, which receives funding from state video lottery terminal revenue.
The plan also calls for changes at Pimlico Race Course, home to the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but little information was available. That part of the capital improvement plan is still being developed, MJC president Tom Chuckas said in a conference call with reporters.
The three-phase plan stretches across a timeline extending past 2017, according to the document. Chuckas said RFRA money will be available to the tracks for 16 years and total about $112 million.
"Right now, that fund will average, starting in 2014, about $7 million a year for the (Maryland) Jockey Club," he said. "You take that out 16 years, that's about $112 million. Under the legislation, whatever the Jockey Club builds, 50% will be coming from the state."
In a preliminary discussion of the plans, Chuckas said the short-term goal will be the construction of 150 stalls on the grounds of Laurel this year, followed by 150 more next year. The construction will satisfy promises that were part of a 10-year operating agreement with horsemen reached in December that allow the MJC to close the Bowie Training Center and move horsemen to the backstretches at Laurel and Pimlico.
The MJC also will construct six new 36-stall barns and new grooms' quarters that will house 130 workers at Pimlico.
The section of the plan addressing Pimlico calls for "substantial patron-focused improvements to the clubhouse and grandstand buildings" as well as other areas on the property.
"Obviously, there is more detail on the backstretch, with new barns and groom quarters," Chuckas said. "The Stronach Group and the (Maryland) Jockey Club are looking at Pimlico. For a multitude of reasons, Pimlico is outdated. Is that a politically correct statement? Something has to be done with Pimlico.
"Right now, what is going on is a real detailed study to see what has to be done. And we're cautious here. We're just not at the stage to say what they are. When we do decide what has to be done, we want to come out and state it emphatically and be sure we're going to do it."
The most ambitious plans on the table are for Laurel, and Chuckas acknowledged they will require extensive discussions with racing stakeholders, political and community association leaders, as well as extensive permitting.
With a plan to knock down all existing barns on the backstretch and put retail development on that part of the property, Chuckas said planning and design for that phase would stretch out to at least 2015.
Chuckas also said moving the grandstand and clubhouse to the other side of the track, long a pet plan of Frank Stronach, "opens it up to retail. The global plan is much more along the lines of Gulfstream Park for the racetrack and retail."
With plans to shift operations to the other side of the track, Chuckas was not clear about the fate of the historic Laurel paddock, one of the most distinctive features on the grounds.
"That's to be determined," Chuckas said. "It's an icon, a historic piece. I'm not sure if at this juncture it can be moved. It all comes down to the ability to move it."
The MJC will seek "in short order" permission from the racing commission to begin work on the new barns, Chuckas said.
Members of the racing commission and a spokesman for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association could not be reached for comment.