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State, owners beginning the battle for Pimlico’s soul

  • Horses race around the first turn in a file image from the 125th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

  • Horses make thier way onto the track at Pimlico Race Course the day before the Preakness Stakes. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Published: 2/24/2019 9:40:18 PM
Modified: 2/24/2019 9:40:19 PM

BALTIMORE — Ten weeks after a study recommended that the city, state and Pimlico Race Course owner negotiate over the track’s future, the dialogue has become strained and Baltimore’s elected officials and business leaders say they must battle to prevent the Preakness Stakes from ditching its home as the NFL’s Colts did in 1984.

“There is no longer any question that they want to abandon Pimlico,” Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg said of The Stronach Group, the Canadian horse racing conglomerate that owns Pimlico.

The faded, 149-year-old track is the annual home of the Preakness, Maryland’s largest and splashiest sporting event.

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, and city leaders say they are strategizing to prevent a Preakness exit that would take a piece of the city’s identity with it.

“Allowing the Stronach family to take the Preakness is eerily reminiscent of the Irsay family stealing the Colts from Baltimore in the dead of night,” said Baltimore Development Corp. president William H. Cole IV. “The Mayflower moving truck is idling right now, and it needs to stop.”

Stronach says Pimlico is no longer viable and that it’s not worth spending more than $400 million to rebuild a track that stages just 12 racing days a year. In a Feb. 8 letter to Gov. Larry Hogan and General Assembly leaders, Stronach chief operating officer Tim Ritvo said the best plan was the creation of a “super track” at Laurel Park, which the company also owns.

In her own letter to Hogan and top legislators, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh forcefully argued against the state assisting Stronach in Laurel’s renovation. “Allowing a wealthy family from another country to use Maryland tax money for a racetrack to have as their anchor for the development of their 300-acre site in Laurel would be a travesty,” she wrote.

In her letter, Pugh alluded to a Stronach family feud, and said the company was “in disarray.” In October, a lawsuit Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach filed against his daughter, Belinda Stronach, revealed an explosive power struggle and spending dispute between the patriarch and his heir.

The escalating rhetoric between the city and the Stronach company “is troubling for the racing industry,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

In particular, Foreman said, the mayor’s letter “did not sit well with the industry” because it didn’t recognize the efforts of The Stronach Group, horsemen and breeders to rebuild Maryland racing.

“Nonetheless, we all recognize that the possible move of the Preakness and the closing of Pimlico as a racetrack creates a huge economic and psychological concern. It is a difficult conversation,” Foreman said.

Long in decline, horse racing in Maryland has rebounded in recent years. Under legislation approved in 2008, the state subsidizes the industry with a percentage of casino slot machine revenues. But Foreman said: “It didn’t just happen because of the infusion of (slot) revenues.”

City officials and developers consider a rebuilt Pimlico — with the accompanying prestige of the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown — vital to the redevelopment of a distressed area of Baltimore.

In the city’s vision for the track, a new plaza would serve as a saddling area during Preakness week and be used the rest of the year for public concerts, performing arts, festivals and open-air markets. A Maryland Stadium Authority-funded study in December said that realignment of the tracks and infield could encourage such private development as a supermarket, a hotel, townhouses, shops, an expanded LifeBridge Health medical campus and other amenities.

“What you don’t want to lose is your anchor,” said David Cordish, whose Baltimore development company owns Power Plant Live downtown and Live Casino & Hotel in Hanover. Referring to the strength of the Preakness brand, he said, “Here you’ve got a sexy, nationally recognized facility with one of the leading events in the world, and you’re going to go to developers and say, ‘You can be a part of it.’ Make it a multi-purpose venue, where you have festivals and concerts.”

To try to preserve the Preakness, Cordish said, Baltimore-area lawmakers have several tools.

One is a state law saying the race can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

Legislators could also propose ending the horse racing subsidies, Cordish said. The industry received more than $71 million of casino gaming revenues in the 2018 fiscal year.

“This is a little different from the Mayflower in that Baltimore City and the state have weapons,” Cordish said.

The economic impact of the Preakness has been estimated in various studies at more than $30 million annually.

If racing does leave Pimlico, Ritvo said, The Stronach Group would help the property and the surrounding communities thrive under some other use.

“We are committed to not leave it as an empty, barren land,” Ritvo said. “Putting Preakness aside, what is the best use of that property? We’re willing to work with the city and Sinai (Hospital) to figure that out.”

The stadium authority study proposed replacing Pimlico with a stylish new track estimated at $424 million. The plan — embraced by the city — includes a four-level clubhouse and plaza area and is designed to open the amenities to the surrounding community year-round.

But no one has stepped up to pay the sizable tab.

The study suggested that Stronach, the city and state “enter into future negotiations” over Pimlico.

Legislation pending in the General Assembly would bring the parties together in a work group “to study and make recommendations regarding financing options” for rebuilding Pimlico.

“We need all parties, including Stronach, to come to the table,” said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. “I think passage of the legislation would bring them to the table.”

Hearings on the bill are scheduled for March 1 in the House, and five days later in the Senate.

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