Welcome to date night at Laurel Park race track. You start with live music, mix in some cheap drinks, an all-you-can eat buffet and a twilight race schedule on Fridays that accommodates a regular work day and still offers a front rail view of the competing ponies.
"I like the evening, the 3:40 post time," said Linda Egolf. "I think that’s neat and I think it’s usually over around 7 so it still gives you time to leave the track and get dinner or whatever and carry on with your evening."
Trouble is, she and Stephen Phillips were among only a half dozen couples who showed up in the party tent last Friday night. And like the scores of folks a little closer to the action in the grandstand or hovering near the finish line, they were already Laurel regulars.
Not to worry, says Tim Ritvo, a top official of the Stronach Company, which owns Laurel Park and its sister track at Pimlico. Simply holding a racing meet in July for the first time since 2010 boosts attendance ahead of recent years when those racing days were held in the winter.
"We’re trading these off for Wednesday and Thursday in November when you barely get anyone to come here," Ritvo said. "The weather’s not good."
Ritvo and Sal Sinatra, general manager of the Maryland tracks, have been charged with turning around the fortunes of these aging facilities that have been losing money for years. Perhaps the clearest sign of their distress came when the toilets went out at Pimlico during this year’s Preakness.
Sinatra said they are working on a master plan that will likely depend on Laurel to make enough money to support operations at both of the huge tracks. He’s hoping to keep his losses to under $1 million this year.
"We realized that in order to be efficient, we have to use the building more often," he explained.
That meant dispensing with the old 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekday schedule--which pretty much excluded anyone with a day job--and adding Sunday racing, complete with a brunch and sports bar for football fans.
“There’s no reason that because it’s football Sunday that we shouldn’t run," Sinatra said. "I mean, everybody can’t go to the game. Why not give them a nice spot to come and enjoy that?"
He said he wants to make Friday night date night, Saturday a race day and Sunday family day. “That’s kind of the theme.”
Sinatra said he is also planning four or five special event days at Laurel that might attract as many as 20,000 fans each.
"And I’m going to try to do more with younger people obviously because that’s our future," he added.
Ritvo and Sinatra have invested $10 million so far in mostly cosmetic improvements to the tracks, such as high definition televisions that feature local handicappers as well as races run all over the country.
Their efforts seem to be paying off where it counts most for them: in the betting handle. Total wagering for Pimlico’s 37-day spring meet this year was up 25 percent from 2014, including a big jump for the Black-eyed Susan Stakes, the day before the Preakness. That followed a 15 percent increase for Laurel’s winter meet this year.
Pimlico’s meet this year also brought the great good news of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. And the terrible news of riots in the West Baltimore community that surrounds the track. A Pimlico security guard was shot in the parking lot the morning after the Belmont Stakes, Sinatra said.
"After the unrest in Baltimore, 90 percent of the questions I got going up to the Preakness was about the safety of everybody, and what we were doing for security, and thank God everything went smooth," he recalled. "Even the police who got beat up or whatever were a big help to me. But then came the day after the Belmont."
The city strife complicated the track owners’ tentative plans to try to move the Preakness to Laurel. They did not realize at first that such a move would require General Assembly approval. And then after the riots, came a fierce backlash from city political leaders.
State Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, who lives in a modern condo within walking distance of the Pimlico racetrack, said he would strongly resist any effort to move the Preakness.
"The Preakness is an important part of the history and the economy of both the Park Heights Pimlico neighborhood and the city itself," Rosenberg said. "And it’s very important that we keep the Preakness here."
Sinatra noted, though, that one way or another, the problems of Pimlico, the second oldest racetrack in the nation, will have to be addressed.
"It needs help," he said. "I mean, it was toilets this year, it could be electric next year, it could be a fire or something bad could happen. The building is old and I gotta think five to 10 years from now what that building is going to be like.”
Ritvo and Rosenberg both suggested they might make a deal with Maryland officials to leverage slots revenue-- already targeted for the purpose--to finance long-term improvements to the track. The likely goal would be to redesign Pimlico along the lines of Saratoga in New York, the nation’s oldest track, which features a brief, family-friendly season showcasing a signature event.
But there’s still that nagging issue of getting millennials out to the tracks. Twenty-seven year old horse trainer Lacey Gaudet, who comes from a family deeply embedded in the sport—including handicapper Gabby Gaudet--says she doesn’t have the answer.
"It’s funny because I wish there were more people my age around here but I honestly don’t know how to sell the product," she explained. "It’s kind of an old school sport."
She noted that previous managers of the Maryland tracks made a ham-handed attempt a couple years ago to hold a College Day on the same day as a Maryland-Duke basketball game.
"Nobody was here," she said.
Ritvo said it’s too soon to judge their work in progress.
"Right now it’s low-hanging fruit; trying to bring the fans back to the track," he said. "Give them a good experience. We’ll hit a lot of singles and doubles doing that. The home run is not until you spend the $100 million, $200 million on a facility."
Meanwhile, another month of date nights at the racetrack beckons.