People kept asking me if I’d been to Laurel Park lately. They told me I wouldn’t recognize the place. I laughed.
I go way back with Laurel–back to free Thanksgiving dinner in the track kitchen with Lonnie Fuller and Crazy Sam; back to the Lasix Barn and the new Receiving Barn; back to trying to saddle a horse when Barclay Tagg forgot he was supposed to help; back to talking my way past the guard at the top of the stretch; back to finishing fifth in the 1982 Maryland Juvenile Cham-pionship behind Dixieland Band, Deputed Testamony and Caveat and not realizing what I was seeing; back to working for the notes team at the International Turf Festival.
But, no, I guess I hadn’t been to Laurel lately. Not since winter anyway.
I remember it being cold, really cold. I remember having a nice lunch in the new restaurant, Tips. I remember new televisions. The changes were refreshing, but it was still Laurel.
I went back in October for the Maryland Million and felt like I was somewhere else and even–regrettably–told racing secretary Georganne Hale so.
“I thought I was at the wrong racetrack,” I said to Hale, whose history with the track goes back only slightly longer than mine. If it sounded smart-alecky, it wasn’t meant to be. It just came out, and that’s how nice the place looked. She’ll get over it. I think.
Laurel gleamed with fresh paint, new floors, new bars and food-service areas, reconfigured entry doors with welcome mats, more new televisions, a revamped simulcast area, huge photos on the walls and a redone terrace dining room.
Most importantly, Laurel showcased a new attitude.
People were proud of the place again and I mean pretty much everybody–employees, fans, horsemen, regulars, newcomers. On Maryland Million Day, Stronach Group boss Tim Ritvo proudly gave tours. He shook hands, smiled, talked about bigger plans. Maryland Million winners paused in mid-interview to crow about the place, the progress, the management team.
“Nice, isn’t it?” said owner Chip Reed after winning the Ladies with Monster Sleeping. “With the purses coming up and the way the Maryland Jockey Club is working now and fixing the place up, Laurel’s going to be a showplace. It really is. It’s super all around. It’s great to be involved, great to be a Maryland owner now.”
Ritvo, Sal Sinatra and company aren’t finished.
The drawing-board plans go far beyond new televisions and paint and laminate flooring. How about commercial and resident development around a new regional train station just to the north of the grandstand building? How about an open-air paddock area that invites potential guests? How about a retractable glass front? How about the sky is–almost–the limit?
Like most of the region’s racing-related success stories, this one owes at least some credit to slot machines. From the portion of slots revenue allocated to racing, money gets set aside for racetrack facility improvements. Projects must address the physical plant used by customers (horsemen and fans), meaning the money can’t be used to buy advertising for example, and the tracks must match any money withdrawn from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account. In 2014, more than $9.5 million was generated and the total was more than $32 million since slots came online in 2010.
Clearly, the Maryland Jockey Club is matching and spending at Laurel–to the tune of $17 million in projects from new barns in the stable area to all those improvements to the frontside.
The work has meant more than physical improvements, however. It means health and viability. It means the racing industry has a chance, which means the breeding industry does too. Listen and look around Maryland racing these days and you get confidence and positivity. You used to get angst.
Reed is right, it’s great to be involved. And nice to be back.