Just a couple of years ago, if you spent an afternoon at Laurel Park, you may have felt like you were in a time warp: The stands were practically empty, and the jockeys, trainers and employees were working for a smattering of die-hard horse racing fans who dreamt of the track’s better times.
The grandstand looked like it hadn’t been updated in decades, which it hadn’t. Then there were the facilities for the horses, trainers and other employees, which had a third-worldish appearance.
Enter the Toronto-based Stronach Group, which has invested $30 million in Laurel Park during the past two years. Today, many of those decrepit stables and training accommodations have been demolished and replaced by bright, modern facilities; and to stand in the middle of the massive grandstand and take a look to the right at the classy new seating area can only give a guest confidence that the recent past at Laurel Park isn’t its future.
That’s also true looking just outside the facility, where the area around the MARC station will be developed by Howard County and spur construction of a few hundred residences on the west and north sides of the track. And a concert venue could rise on the south side, by the main entrance.
The initial infusion of money and vitality has shown up in the bottom line. In the past two years at Laurel Park, attendance is up, the handle (in this case, the total amount of money wagered in a season) is up — and spirits are, too. And now, Stronach is preparing to invest at least $50 million more in the coming years.
Today, the place the late Baltimore sportscaster Charley Eckman delighted in calling “Love-lee Lau-rell” again fits the description that he coined decades ago, before the track practically became an afterthought. But now, it’s experiencing a renaissance that many fans and area residents gave up dreaming of.
Getting a Handle
Meanwhile, any plans for updates at Stronach’s other Maryland thoroughbred track, Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, are on hold until this winter, while the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) completes a study to determine if “Old Hilltop” is worthy of renovations or rebuilding to accommodate the Preakness and 16 regular dates.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for Stronach, offered the numbers to back up the track’s recent success. “Attendance on Saturdays has grown to about 5,000, with about half of that number coming on Fridays and Sundays. That’s resulted in a gross handle of $296 million in 2014, $355 million last year and $425 million to date this year,” he said.
And that’s just the start for the Stronach Group, which Ritvo said holds about $4 billion in market share in the $10 billion North American horse racing industry, which has contracted in various ways (less handle, fewer races, fewer horses) in recent years. “We don’t own a team, but much of the league,” he said, “and we see growth everywhere.”
That’s because, oddly enough, Stronach is drawing more people to Laurel Park by simply creating a festive atmosphere, where guests sit and watch the races from the grandstand, the buffet, a restaurant or a bar – and one day in the not-too-distant future, the roof. It hosts various events, such as business meetings or a recent wine festival; there is even a new ballroom that has already hosted a wedding reception.
“The hardcore gamblers drive the sport,” Ritvo said, “so the more casual guests don’t even have to bet.”
The growing success of Laurel Park, which already hosts the Maryland Million, has Ritvo thinking of other marquee events that Stronach would like to attract or revive, such as the Washington D.C. International, which hasn’t been run since 1994; the Breeder’s Cup or, as some observers have suggested, maybe even the Preakness, though the first step in that discussion will depend on the findings of the MSA study, which will be released during the legislative session.
Today, Cricket Goodell, executive director with the Timonium-based Maryland Horse Breeders Association (MHBA), is among the key players in the state who are happy to see the energy emanating from Laurel Park.
There were “a lot of families [at the racetrack] on Maryland Million day, and we were excited to see that,” said Goodell. “[The Stronach Group] is trying to appeal to everyone every way they can to get people to come out. There is so much competition for the entertainment dollar in this market that, if you have a facility that isn’t quite up to snuff, that’ll hurt. You have to be competitive.”
John McDaniel, chair of the Maryland Racing Commission (MRC), is also encouraged by Laurel Park’s transformation to more of an entertainment center. “Racing is the core, but they’re making it a destination with all kinds of things for people and families to participate in. You can partake in the horse races, walk down to the paddock and have a cigar; or you can watch football, dine, socialize,” etc.
He’s “more inspired than I’ve been about the future of racing in Maryland” due to Stronach’s efforts, he said. “I also like the Off-Track Betting at [several]strategically important locations. They’re bringing the game to the fans, as well as creating partnerships with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, MHBA and the MRC. There’s peace in the valley and that’s all good.”
Mike Hopkins, executive director of the MRC, sounded hopeful that Stronach can attract the Breeder’s Cup to Laurel Park. “That’s another indication of where Stronach and Maryland racing are heading,” he said. “That event has moved around the country over the years, so that fact alone should give us hope that it will be run, at some point, at Laurel Park.”
Lou Ulman, an attorney with Offitt Kurman, horse owner, former chair of the MRC and current board member, is also “very impressed with the work that Stronach is doing and how they’ve increased the handle, at Laurel Park and via satellite feeds” for patrons who place bets from other venues around North America.
“When I first joined the commission 15 years ago, one of my fellow commissioners told a reporter that the average age of the racing fans was ‘deceased,’” he said, with a laugh. “But now, they’re getting real crowds,” with fans of varying ages.
Then, Ulman said, “The challenge was whether the state and the track owner would step up and make an investment, without slots. Now, part of that slots money is being used [and is being matched by Stronach] to make the investments in and around the track and the facilities to make Laurel Park as attractive as it can be.”
As far as commenting on the future of the Preakness, Ulman said that he, like most observers, thinks it’s premature to do so — at least until the MSA study comes out. “But I will say that, if it turns out that the cost of modernizing Pimlico is prohibitive, then they would probably consider trying to move the race to Laurel Park.
“However, I think that the Baltimore City delegation and other legislators would be extremely upset by such a move,” he said. “If it happens, I hope is doesn’t affect the state’s support for our great industry.”
The notion of the Preakness moving, naturally, will go over like a lead balloon in Baltimore because that change would involve 146 years of tradition, albeit in a section of the city, Park Heights, that can be dangerous. The city also doesn’t want to lose the economic impact after last year’s Preakness drew 135,000 racing fans and infield revelers, with a handle for the day of $94.1 million.
So there could be some harder kicks of the political football during the next legislative session.
“It’s a very difficult decision, and there are very complex issues with moving the Preakness, such as continuing to support thoroughbred racing with part of the slots revenue,” Ulman said. “Personally, I’d like to see the race stay at Pimlico, if it’s feasible to do so.”
While moving the Preakness might have seemed far-fetched at one time, it doesn’t seem to be the case now. For now, many industry veterans are just enjoying what’s happening today.
“The horsemen, breeders and track owners are getting along very well. These entities were fighting for a better racing industry in Maryland for many years, but were also fighting among themselves as to how to best accomplish that goal,” Ulman said, “and now all of these positive changes are happening. I didn’t think I would see this day.”
Neither did many of Ulman’s contemporaries. However, Ritvo reiterated that Stronach is just getting started and will see, like everyone else, where tomorrow leads.
“We’re 100% in,” he said. “Maryland is the model, and the legislature, the horsemen, the breeders and the Maryland Racing Commission are all in sync with Laurel Park.”