Verstandig wants ‘Disney’ of racing for Md. tracks

October 13, 2009 7:17 PM


Pikesville developer Carl Verstandig said Tuesday he plans to bid on Maryland’s two thoroughbred race tracks, which were placed back on the auction block just days ago, and would spend more than $20 million on renovating the historic venues.

Verstandig said he never lost interest after Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course were pulled off the list of assets up for auction this spring by their bankrupt owner, Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp. Magna requested to place the Maryland properties (and properties in California and Florida) back up for auction in a federal bankruptcy court filing Friday.

“We’re back into it,” said Verstandig, whose company, America’s Realty LLC, redevelops shopping centers in the Baltimore area.

Verstandig said he and his West Coast-based silent partner who owns 14 tracks across the country plan to invest $12 million to $15 million in renovating Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.

Renovations would include adding two white-tablecloth restaurants from California and three casual dining or fast-food establishments owned by local entrepreneurs.

“It would be the Disney World of racing,” he said. “No money’s been put into it that’s of any significance. I think that’s why the attendance is so poor.”

Verstandig said by his estimates, about 50 acres of Pimlico’s 80 undeveloped acres are not used. Pimlico covers 116 acres in Northwest Baltimore. He would also include in his bid a proposal to build office and leasing space for Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, which borders the race track to the east.

Having more developed land would help with parking space on Preakness day, he said. The race has been called Maryland’s Super Bowl and in recent years has drawn more than 100,000 spectators. By Magna’s estimates, Pimlico’s parking capacity is about 3,500 spaces.

Magna’s filing has requested that bidders not move Preakness outside Maryland. Verstandig said he envisioned a shortened season at Pimlico, similar to the 20 racing days it has now, that centers on the Preakness Stakes in May.

The proposed renovations to Laurel Park would cost about half as much as Pimlico’s. That development would include immediate upgrades to the track and facilities. Under Verstandig’s plan, races would be run at Laurel year-round. Its racing season now runs January to April, August and September to December.

Verstandig also said he wants to build a retail center on about 800,000 square feet of unused land near the track and has several big-box vendors ready to sign a leasing agreement. While he would not say who the vendors are, he said a national hardware store, a national food store and several restaurants are interested in the space.

In its filing, Magna asked that bids for the properties — including the Bowie Training Center in Prince George’s County — be submitted by Nov. 2. The company will select its “stalking horse” bid, or an initial offer that competitors can bid against, a week later. If approved by the bankruptcy judge, the auction will be held in New York on Jan.8, which gives Maryland 60 days to enter in the auction and at least match the stalking horse bid.

According to state law passed in April, Maryland has the right of first refusal on a bid made for the Preakness Stakes. In this case, Magna is proposing to handcuff the race with the Pimlico property.

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