POOR, PROUD Pimlico gets dressed up for Preakness

Saturday, May 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Joe Orseno stepped onto the grounds at grand old Pimlico Race Course and couldn't believe his eyes.

``They really put some work into the place,'' said Orseno, motioning toward the track's refurbished stakes barn. ``Not that it was bad last year, but they beautified it even more.''

Thousands of gallons of paint, five new barns and plenty of recently planted flowers and trees have brought the aging racetrack into the 21st century. When the Preakness is run next Saturday, fans who haven't been at Pimlico in 12 months probably will be surprised at how splendid the place looks.

But much more money is needed for Pimlico to solidify its stature as host to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

Just a few years ago, Pimlico, with its dilapidated, rat-infested barns and dank grandstand, was showing its age. Some thought the decaying racetrack, now well into its second century of operation, was not worthy of hosting the prestigious Preakness.

Lou Raffetto heard the grumbling. So, upon accepting the position of chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club in January, he immediately set out to forge a new reputation for the 131-year-old track.

Raffetto focused first on the area around the stakes barn, where the Preakness entrants are housed. Given only $300,000 to work with, Raffetto had workers tear down the old barns, paint the buildings that had still had a few remaining years of use and replace the barbed-wire fence around the stalls with a brick-and-mortar barrier.

``We did it for the horsemen, because the barns were in terrible, terrible shape,'' Raffetto said. ``We needed to make a statement for the people coming in for the Preakness.''

It worked. Orseno, who saddled Preakness winner Red Bullet a year ago, was impressed. So was esteemed trainer Nick Zito, who brought AP Valentine with him for this year's race.

``This is long overdue. If you're lucky and blessed to have these type of horses, they should be housed the right way,'' Zito said.

The facelift is impressive, but it's only a start.

``I'm very proud of the work that we've done, but it's going to be a slow process,'' said Raffetto, who previously was in charge of track operations at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts. ``What we've done sends a signal, that we certainly have the ability and intention to do things right. But until we get the funds, we'll keep making small steps.''

Therein lies the biggest problem facing Raffetto and Pimlico. A bond fund designed to provide Pimlico and nearby Laurel Park with $30 million for repairs has not materialized, and Maryland tracks are losing fans to Delaware and West Virginia sites that also offer slot machines.

Interest in racing in Maryland is waning, and Raffetto is desperately seeking to attract new fans as well as bring the old ones back.

``The key here is to try to get new users into the building. Obviously, if we get slots, that's going to do it,'' Raffetto said. ``Long term, candidly, the issue of slots is a huge one at this point in time. Unfortunately, we realize they're not on the table for us right now.''

That's why the Preakness means so much. Pimlico expects a handle of $43 million next Saturday, and the money made on that single afternoon accounts for more than half the bottom line for the entire spring meeting.

In 1998, the day was interrupted by a power failure, a snafu that cost the track millions in bets. One year later, a fan raced onto the track from the infield and attempted to punch a horse.

Neither incident enhanced the track's already shaky reputation. But Pimlico is past that. Track officials are now looking toward the future, to a time when even the casual racing fan shows up to see the Sport of Kings.

``It's a very critical time,'' Raffetto said. ``It's tough to move forward without having the proper tools, so we have to do the best with what we have to work with.

``In a dream world, if we had purses twice what they are now, I think we could rival Churchill Downs. You would encourage breeders here to breed better horses, and you'd have better horses here. That would generate interest in the local product.''

The future can wait. For now, Raffetto is content with having made Pimlico palatable for the trainers and owners in town for the Preakness.

``They're going to come back, regardless, because it's the Triple Crown,'' Raffetto said. ``But it speaks well of the Maryland Jockey Club that when the guys come here, they have a positive impression.

``They're going to leave saying, `Man, those guys did a great job.' It's going to create a positive image that maybe didn't exist before.''