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Plan to rebuild Maryland racetracks inspires praise from industry, concerns for Pimlico-based horsemen

Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Horse Racing

BALTIMORE -- Willie Kee could not bring himself to join the chorus of acclaim for a new plan to rebuild Maryland's aged racetracks. Instead, the 60-year-old horse trainer thought about traffic, specifically the daily drive he might have to make from Pikesville to Laurel if the plan passes muster in the General Assembly.

"Have you been on the Beltway in the morning?" he said in a weary tone.

Though the plan -- forged by Baltimore and racing industry leaders, and released Saturday -- would secure the future of the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course and create a consolidated training center at Laurel Park, it did not inspire unanimous praise among Maryland horsemen. Some of those who currently train horses at Pimlico year-round feel vexed by the prospect of a forced move to Laurel.

"We're still going to have to get out and move to Laurel," said Kee, who's based his operation at Pimlico since 2001. "You ask anybody here and it's the same deal as it was before. We've all got to get out of here."

If the plan receives approval from the General Assembly, the existing backstretch at Pimlico -- home to more than 100 trainers, stable hands and exercise riders -- would be demolished in a few years. Some horsemen and workers could be asked to make temporary moves to Timonium or Bowie while construction proceeds on the 1,584-stall training center planned for Laurel Park.

Kee said it would be enough to make him consider moving his eight-horse barn to Pennsylvania or West Virginia. The Pikesville resident dreads the prospect of sitting in Beltway traffic to Laurel 365 days a year. And he's skeptical that Laurel Park can accommodate all the displaced horsemen.

 

Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA), represented the local industry in negotiating the plan. He acknowledged the concerns of Pimlico-based trainers, but said upgrades at Laurel, including modernized stalls and a Tapeta-surfaced training track, would create a net positive for most. Tapeta is a synthetic track surface that's usable in all weather conditions.

"We have briefed the boards of the Maryland thoroughbred horsemen and the horse breeders, and they're unanimously in support," Foreman said. "Obviously, it's a challenge for some of those from northern Baltimore County who are used to going to Pimlico. ... But it's the notion of the Tapeta surface, what that means. It's going to be a lot easier to train at Laurel than it would be if we had just a turf and a dirt course. That makes it appealing to them, among other things."

Kee said the additional training track would make Laurel more palatable, but noted the board members of the horsemen's association are based at Laurel and Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton. He said Pimlico-based horsemen have largely been shut out of the discussion.

"They're talking about changing our lives," Kee said. "And we haven't even been asked, 'What do you think about this?' "

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