By Chris Korman
12:37 PM CDT, May 9, 2013
Frank Stronach, owner of Pimlico, is in Washington, D.C., this week. He discussed his new book, "Magna Man: My Road to Economic Freedom," at a session today.
Yesterday, he spent time on Capitol Hill, working to spread his theory that American corporations should have their tax rates cut by 10 percent on the provision that they return that savings entirely to workers.
This, he says, is the best way to ensure employees are invested in the company’s success. It is also the best way, he thinks, to jump-start and eventually stabilize the economy.
He spoke briefly of that work during an interview at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. But the conversation turned quickly to horse racing.
“It’s the best time of the year for that,” said Stronach, who breeds and races horses in addition to owning several of the country’s most important tracks.
To anyone associated with Maryland racing there is only one question for Stronach, and it is the one that has lingered since he bought the state’s thoroughbred tracks in 2002, growing heavier each year: What will become of Old Hilltop?
As we’ve written, The Stronach Group subsidiary, Maryland Jockey Club, is finally in position to make a major investment in the facility, which has not seen significant renovations since the 1970s. The last major improvements came in the late 1980s, and in recent years the aging infrastructure of the building has necessitated spending that took away from possible cosmetic upgrades.
In other words, a lot of minor upgrades have gone by the wayside while Stronach and Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas waited to see whether racing could again flourish in Maryland.
A 10-year deal reached late last year between the jockey club, horsemen and breeders ensures at least a decade of racing here and enables the track owner to dip into a racetrack renewal fund seeded with slots money that should provide $112 million in matching funds over the next 16 years.
The jockey club has been clear on its plan for Laurel, which hosts all but 24 of the state’s 140 racing days this year. The current grandstand area will be demolished, and a new one will be built on the other side of the track, so that it fronts to Route 198. The new building will follow the model established by another Stronach property, Gulfstream Park, and include shopping and restaurant options aimed at attracting a broader audience.
But Stronach was still mum on what he’ll do with his signature property. Because of its urban location, he’s unlikely to try to replicate the feel of Gulfstream Park.
Stronach, 80, was more cautious in discussing his plans than he has been in the past. Upon buying the Maryland tracks, he immediately pledged to rebuild both of them. It never happened, and subsequent promises went unfulfilled and fueled the toxic environment surrounding the sport in Maryland as it lost trainers, horses and breeders to nearby states with purses fattened by slots revenue last decade.
Now that Maryland’s casinos are up and running and pumping $3.5 million into racing purses each month, breeders have returned and trainers are no longer looking elsewhere.
Stronach, though, wasn’t ready to divulge what he’ll do with the “solemn ground” where the Preakness will be run May 18.
“We’ll make major renovations,” he said. “We’ll spend a lot on Pimlico. The plans are being drawn up now. We’re working through that.”
Stronach’s vision includes building a park-like area around the track to make it feel more like an oasis in the middle of the city. He realizes that, for as old and crumbling as the track may be, its greatest challenge is location. Racing fans and trainers I spoke with in Kentucky constantly mentioned “the area around Pimlico” as one of the things preventing racing from re-emerging in Maryland.
Driving from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to the track means cutting through some of the city’s most dilapidated neighborhoods. Park Heights, which borders Pimlico to the west and south, consists largely of boarded-up row homes, empty store fronts and a few liquor stores and pawn shops.
Stronach reiterated his belief that the area can be rejuvenated and told the story of opening the Baltimore Technical Training Center in the middle of the neighborhood in 2005. Just this week, the city moved forward with a plan to build a new youth baseball complex in partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation not far from Pimlico at a total cost of $1 million.
Ultimately, Stronach’s plan for Pimlico will probably revolve around a plan to make the seating areas smaller and more intimate feeling for everyday operation, while allowing for easy temporary accommodations to hold the 120,000 plus who attend Preakness.
Stronach has already agreed to build new barns on the backside and spruce up the area abutting Northern Parkway. It seems likely that an effort will be made to create a perimeter around the entire facility that helps distinguish it from the surrounding area. Churchill Downs, after all, has similarly troubled neighborhoods nearby but is generally considered safe and upscale because of the apron surrounding the track.
“We’re sure we can make it work,” Stronach said. “We’re going to put money into it and we feel great that Maryland has put a deal in place that allows us to look to the future.”
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