Laurel Park History

Laurel Park first appeared on the racing scene on October 2, 1911. Its first meeting was held under the direction of the Laurel Four County Fair. Three years later, in 1914, New York City grocery entrepreneur James Butler purchased the track, installing renowned promotions king Col. Matt Winn as the track’s general manager. Winn is recognized as the man who put the Kentucky Derby on the racing map.

Under Butler’s stewardship, Laurel hosted three match races, beginning with Hourless vs. Omar Khayyam at one mile and one-quarter on October 18, 1917. Hourless had won the 1917 Belmont Stakes and Omar Khayyam had accounted for the Kentucky Derby that year. When the two horses met in the Brooklyn Derby earlier that year, Omar Khayyam prevailed by a nose, but in the Laurel match race Hourless rallied to win by a length in a time of 2:02.

Laurel entered a new era in December 1984, when Frank J. De Francis and his partners, Robert and John “Tommy” Manfuso, purchased the racetrack from Schapiro. Under Franks leadership, the entirety of the clubhouse was totally renovated. The club bar and concession stands were enhanced with black marble, brass and neon accents. Three dining rooms were also part of the improvements, including the first floor “Silks Room” with its mahogany panelling and stained glass windows, where light fare is offered. The “Ruffian Room,” located on the mezzanine level, is reserved for special events, and the “Sky Suite Club,” for members, have also been completely redesigned in a most elegant fashion, making them among the finest at any racetrack in America.

In 1987, another $1 million was allocated to improvements, which centered on beautifying and modernizing the second floor of the clubhouse. Two new cinema theaters were added, one on the clubhouse second level and the other on the grandstand mezzanine. Important sporting events are televised in each theater.

In August 1989, Frank J. De Francis died, but his vision lives on through his son, Joseph A. De Francis, who now serves as president of Laurel and Pimlico. Following in the footsteps of his father, De Francis introduced several concepts to Maryland racing. Under the younger De Francis’ control, Off-Track Wagering, full-card simulcasting and a renewed commitment to the patron have combined to rejuvenate the sport.

The backstretch and racing surfaces at Laurel Park were closed from mid-June 2004 to early January 2005 as Magna Entertainment Corp. began a multi-million dollar renovation, which included the widening of both racing surfaces. The new main course, which has been raised and increased in width from 75 to 95 feet, now features one-turn mile races. The track’s composition of 89 percent sand and 11 percent silt and clay is identical to the old Laurel dirt surface. The new, sweeping turf course, which was widened from 75 feet to 142 feet, helped make the track a top simulcast signal. The turf accommodates six track configurations which were named All Along, Bowl Game, Kelso, Dahlia, Exceller and Fort Marcy, in honor of some of the great horses which have competed on the grass at Laurel Park