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State racing industry has successes to celebrate, questions looming, as Maryland Million approaches

From steadily rising betting handles to a rejuvenated breeding program to a pending bid for the Breeders’ Cup, the Maryland thoroughbred racing industry will have much to celebrate Saturday at its annual showcase, the Jim McKay Maryland Million.

But even as the good news accumulates, questions remain about the fate of the state’s signature race, the Preakness. The second phase of a Maryland Stadium Authority study on Pimlico Race Course and the future of the Preakness has not moved forward. Rachelina Bonacci, a spokeswoman for the authority, said stakeholders are still determining the appropriate scope and cost of the next phase.

That was the same message authority Chairman Thomas Kelso delivered in February, after the first phase of the study — which said it would cost between $250 million and $320 million to renovate Pimlico into a suitable long-term home for the Preakness — was released. Kelso expressed optimism at the time that the second phase might proceed quickly and perhaps be done by the end of the year, in time for Pimlico to be a significant topic for the 2018 General Assembly session.

The legislative session begins Jan. 10, however, and Bonacci said she could not give a time frame for when the Pimlico study might resume.

Maryland Jockey Club president Sal Sinatra said he recently saw a draft proposal for the second phase and is hopeful it will proceed soon. But he added it “probably doesn’t seem realistic” for the work to be done by next year’s session. Sinatra said the study has become more complex, with city officials eager to include examinations of the neighborhoods and infrastructure around the track. The Jockey Club, meanwhile, wants it to assess the cost of a full rebuild rather than a renovation.

“We want to have a world-class facility more than just a face lift,” Sinatra said.

Though it’s dwarfed by the Preakness, the Maryland Million at Laurel Park is the signature date on the state’s fall racing calendar. The card features 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions, including seven stakes, headlined by the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic. Now in its 32nd year, the Million has endured despite the sometimes-rocky existence of the industry it celebrates.

“Granted, it’s a regional event,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “But to have an event last this long, in our world, it’s significant.”

Attendance was up 7.4 percent and the handle increased 18.5 percent for last year’s Million day.

Because of the entry requirements, the races put a spotlight on the local breeding industry, which has grown slowly but steadily over the last four years, after foal production bottomed out in 2012.

Among the 10 top breeding states in North America, Maryland was one of just three to see an increase in live foals this year, according to data from the Jockey Club, an organization that tracks thoroughbred breeding across the continent. With a 21.7 percent increase, from 411 foals to 500, Maryland grew significantly faster than Kentucky, the nation’s dominant breeding state.

The future looks promising, Goodall said, with three or four new stallions expected to stand in Maryland. And that doesn’t account for the recent news that Frank Stronach, whose company owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, plans to sell his breeding farm near Paris, Ky., and relocate much of his operation to Maryland and California.

Stronach, long one of the major figures in North American breeding, told the industry publication BloodHorse that he wants to bolster the programs in states where his company owns tracks.

“It’s very exciting news,” Goodall said. “For many years, we’ve hoped he would invest this way. it just makes a lot of sense from his perspective.”

It’s not clear where or when Stronach might set up in Maryland, though he has said he will remain in Kentucky for the 2018 breeding season.

The Stronach Group is also working to attract the Breeders’ Cup, the richest two-day event in American racing, to Laurel Park, likely in either 2020 or 2021. Sinatra and Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the Stronach Group’s racing division, hosted Breeders’ Cup officials at the track in March.

“I think we have a leg up because we’ve done so many Breeders’ Cups at Santa Anita,” Sinatra said. “I think the key is going to be showing them the new luxury seating at Laurel. They depend on ticket sales for their revenue, so that’s going to be important for them.”

The Stronach Group has reported increases in the average daily handle for its last eight meets in Maryland and has spent more than $20 million on improvements to the barns, track surfaces and spectator areas at Laurel Park. But a Breeders’ Cup would shine a national light on the Maryland industry’s progress.

Sinatra said he expects Breeders’ Cup officials to announce a location for 2019 and possibly subsequent years after this year’s event at Del Mar the first weekend of November.

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