10/21/2015 11:36AM

Laurel shows off new look on Maryland Million Day

Jim Dunleavy
There are hundreds of new flat-screen Tvs at Laurel Park for simulcast players.

It has been a year of change in Maryland racing, and the results were clear to see last Saturday at Laurel Park.

Maryland Million Day is one of the most popular days on the calendar, but a year ago, Laurel was showing its age. The facility had been neglected and looked dingy and out of date.

Fast forward 12 months, and the first floor, where most people congregate, is almost unrecognizable. There is new flooring, fresh paint, and the bar areas have been remodeled. The food court actually looks appetizing.

And then there are the new flat-screen TVs, hundreds of them, displaying the Maryland Jockey Club’s new high-definition signal. A major improvement.

There still is work to do at Laurel, but the large Maryland Million Day crowd seemed to enjoy its new surroundings.

“I think this is the first time a lot of these people have seen our renovations,” said Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Laurel and Pimlico. “We want them to see we are committed to racing here and making this a nice place for them to come.”

For years, the focus of The Stronach Group was on Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. Now it has turned its attention to Maryland. Ritvo and Sal Sinatra, who came on board as general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club last December, are developing a long-term master plan for Maryland racing. Although that plan has taken longer than expected and is not yet complete, The Stronach Group has poured significant funds into Laurel.

“Laurel is going to be our main facility. It’s old, but it has good bones and character,” Sinatra said. “Within a 35-mile radius, there are almost 10 million people between Baltimore, Washington, and Annapolis. No decision has been made on what to do with Pimlico, but we’ve already started plans for next year’s Preakness there.”

Upcoming projects at Laurel include gutting the second floor and putting in a sports bar. Plans are being developed to remove the glass that encloses Laurel’s box- and reserved-seat areas and convert the first several rows into outdoor boxes. A retractable glass partition that can be raised or lowered as dictated by weather could then be installed behind the outdoor boxes so that the remaining area can be climate controlled as needed.

Plans also are in the works to build an upper deck of luxury suites.

Construction continues on the backstretch, too, where the second of three new barns is being built. A building that will contain wash stalls, a locker room, and a laundry room also is planned.

“This could all be done in two to three years,” Sinatra said. “By the time we’re done, we will have put $10 million to $15 million into the front side and $7 million into the backstretch.”

The Stronach Group already has contacted the Breeders’ Cup in hopes of hosting its year-end championship races once the renovation is complete.

A train line that connects Baltimore and Washington runs right by the Laurel grandstand. Howard County has approved the construction of a $100 million station and 1,000-car parking garage at the track, according to Sinatra. When the train station opens, plans call for moving the paddock to that side of the building and connecting the track to the station.

“We will reface the building so that people on the trains can’t miss it,” Sinatra said. “We want to move the paddock so that it is facing the train line and people on the train will look right into it.”

As for the current paddock, Sinatra said, “It’s a historic structure. It could be turned into our winter paddock, or it could be converted into a bar or restaurant.”

Laurel ran a summer meet in 2015 for the first time in many years. Track management and the horsemen are still negotiating 2016 dates, but a year-round schedule is possible.

Laurel and Pimlico are on target to race a combined 144 dates this year. Sinatra is hoping to run 160 dates next year. There would be racing year-round except for a three- or four-week break from February into March.

Traditionally, the Laurel winter meet concludes at the end of March, and Pimlico races from early April through Belmont Stakes Day in early June. The Laurel meet could be extended until Kentucky Derby Day, and Pimlico could run from after Derby Day through the end of June.

“That way, we could use the grass course here in April, and we would have fresh turf at Pimlico for Preakness week,” Sinatra said. “Under that plan, we would be at Pimlico six or seven days less than this year.”

Admission and parking fees were discontinued at Laurel this year. And while it may sound like a small thing, food prices were lowered.

“We didn’t want people bringing outside food in, so we lowered the prices and upgraded our food,” Sinatra said. “We offer $6 combo meals. You can get half a chicken and a side for $7. We roast the chickens right there and cut it up right in front of you so you know it’s fresh. We actually had to take some of the regulars by the arm and show them what they could get. Once we did, people were pretty agreeable.”

Sinatra said attendance and total handle for the year are up from last year. They certainly were on Maryland Million Day, when $545,129 was bet ontrack, 17 percent more than last year. All-sources handle on the day was $3.78 million, 35 percent higher than the $2.8 million wagered last year.