They’re serious, OK? No, really. They mean it. For years, officials from the Maryland Jockey Club have talked about plans to renovate, improve and reinvigorate Laurel Park. The old track, they said, will become a gem, a destination, a place where old-fashioned racing fans and newcomers will come together to celebrate the Thoroughbred.
Five years ago, such a statement cued much laughter. Now, well, nobody’s laughing. It’s a reality.
Laurel, before our very eyes, is becoming a racing showplace. Yet another phase – the second-floor area of box seats and clubhouse restaurant – was unveiled at the Maryland Million in October. Think racetrack meets NFL skybox, with all the ingredients of a good Pottery Barn photo shoot – leather couches, conversation areas, comfortable chairs, a giant chess board, long and low coffee tables, a cigar humidor, polished wood, streak-free glass and all the trimmings. Oh, and a great view of the track, food and refreshment of all types, plus televisions at pretty much every viewing angle and a slew of wagering windows ready to help you place a bet.
Following a downstairs renovation which made its debut last year, the work puts Laurel in a new position – as a player in the national racing landscape. Built in 1911, it’s no longer just that old track where Maryland runs its races other than the Preakness.
And they’re not finished.
In November, Maryland Jockey Club officials attended the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita (like Laurel owned by The Stronach Group) with eyes on making a bid to host Thoroughbred racing’s world championships. The 2017 and 2018 editions are slated for Del Mar in California and Churchill Downs in Kentucky, respectively, so 2019 is the earliest option with 2020 or 2021 more likely. Don’t doubt it.
Wouldn’t that be something? Not all that long ago, people wondered if Maryland racing would survive the competition with neighboring states whose Thoroughbred products were fueled by purse and bonus enhancements from slot machines. To host a Breeders’ Cup would confirm the total rebirth of an industry – from one that floundered and missed opportunities to one that leads and makes the most of chances to succeed.
I say bring it on.
The Breeders’ Cup and all its surrounding buzz at Laurel would showcase Maryland’s racing heritage the same way the 2015 version at Keeneland did for Kentucky. Though Santa Anita – with its weather, capacity, history and Los Angeles marketing opportunities – is the ideal host, the event was always designed to move. Though Churchill Downs – with its past, Kentucky Derby cachet and ability to attract 100,000 people to a day’s racing – will always be a host, the Breeders’ Cup can embrace non-traditional locations.
A track like Laurel, in a Thoroughbred state like Maryland, deserves the opportunity. The state’s racing history stands up to the others. The proximity to Washington, D.C., helps generate excitement. There are farms to tour, events to host, people to involve. Now the track is closing in on becoming a world-class venue. And imagine the improvements coming between now and 2020.
In the face of all this opportunity, I also say be cautious.
Breeders’ Cup or no Breeders’ Cup, Laurel and the Maryland Jockey Club are fast becoming the Mid-Atlantic’s flagship racetrack and racetrack operator. With that distinction comes a responsibility to think about more than the real estate between Route 198 and Route 1. The big picture should always be part of the discussion.
Stay in step with local owners, trainers and breeders. They’re the foundation to a successful racing product and a strong relationship with state legislators. The more Maryland-bred, -raised, -owned and -trained horses competing at Maryland tracks the better. Breeding numbers continue to climb in Maryland, because of the collaborative approach to the industry by the racing commission, track ownership, breeders, owners and trainers. That, more than anything, will preserve the financial link between slot machines and purses/purse enhancements.
By hosting Virginia-bred stakes at Laurel the last few years, the MJC has helped boost that state’s Thoroughbred industry at a time of crisis. The other neighbors may or may not be to that point, but Maryland’s success can spill over to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Competition drives this business, no doubt, but a healthy regional industry should be a secondary goal of every state.
Discuss it over lunch at Laurel.