03/31/2015 11:46AM

Meet opens with improvements to video, Sports Palace


The opening of Pimlico Race Course on Thursday, following seven months at Laurel Park, means spring is in the air – if not completely here yet – and that the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes is not far off.

The Stronach Group, which owns both tracks, is continuing to plow money into its aging facilities. When two new barns on the Laurel backstretch are complete, The Stronach Group will have made $7 million in improvements there. Pimlico also will have some new bells and whistles, while Stronach Group chief executive Tim Ritvo and Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra continue to work on a long-term master plan for the two tracks.

The most visible change for Pimlico patrons, both on and offtrack, will be its improved video presentation. The track has spent $1.5 million to go high definition. There will also be an updated graphics package, a new set for track handicapper Gabby Gaudet, and 150 new flat-screen televisions.

“We’ve put flat screens into Clubhouse 1 and 2, we’ve rewired the track for high definition, and bought the cameras,” Sinatra said. “Our signal will be going out in high def.”

Sinatra has overseen the remodeling of the Sports Palace at Pimlico. State of the art when introduced, it had become outdated in a disco ball kind of way. The Sports Palace was formerly the room where the Preakness post-position draw was held, but that event has been moved to different venues as the room fell out of favor. The draw will return to the Sports Palace this year.

“It didn’t have a view of the track, so we blew out the front wall, and now it overlooks the finish line,” Sinatra said. “We have put in new flat-screen TVs and a new granite bar. The public is going to be invited to the draw. It should be a real nice event.”

For bettors, a low-takeout pick five will debut at Pimlico, as will the Rainbow 6. The Jackpot Pick 5 has been dropped.

The pick five will have a 12 percent takeout, the lowest in the United States right now. The Rainbow 6 will be slightly different than at Gulfstream. The minimum bet will be 10 cents, rather than 20 cents, and on days when there is more than one winning ticket or nobody picks six, 40 percent of the pool will carry over, and 60 percent will be paid out in consolations. At Gulfstream, the splits are 30-70.

As always, Pimlico will be the center of the racing world when the Preakness is run for the 140th time May 16. In all, 21 stakes worth $4.2 million will be offered at the meet.

The Preakness will be supported by seven undercard stakes, topped by the Grade 2 Dixie, which has had its purse returned to $300,000 this year after being bumped to $400,000 in 2014.

Seven stakes are scheduled for the day before the Preakness, including the Grade 3, $300,000 Pimlico Special and the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan. The purse of the Black-Eyed Susan was increased from $300,000 to $500,000 in 2014 but has been cut to $250,000 this year.

The meet’s other six stakes will be run April 18.

The 37-day Pimlico meet runs through Belmont Stakes Day, June 6. First post switches to 1:10 p.m. Thursday.

Turf races were listed in the condition book for opening day, but the course is not quite ready.

Only 63 horses are entered in the nine races Thursday, an average of seven per race. The feature is a first-level allowance race.

◗ Jockey Forest Boyce has returned to Maryland after winning 20 races at Fair Grounds to rank 14th in the rider standings. Boyce rode at Laurel on occasion over the winter and won stakes on Savvy Street, Ghost Bay, and Eighttofasttocatch.

◗ Apprentice Nik Juarez returns to the saddle at Pimlico on Friday after injuring his upper leg in a spill at Monmouth Park on Sept. 28. Juarez was the leading apprentice at Monmouth and finished ninth in the standings with 21 wins.