The Preakness Stakes could stay at Pimlico Race Course long-term, said Frank Stronach, founder of the company that owns Maryland’s two major racetracks, but only if redevelopment of the venerable facility is part of a broader attempt to reduce poverty in Baltimore.
“On the one hand, horse racing is important. I realize so much history is involved,” the 85-year-old Canadian businessman said Tuesday in his first extended comments on the future of the Preakness and Pimlico in several years. “I think we will do everything we can that it definitely stays in Maryland. The question is, can we come up with a solution which is a win-win-win? A win for the horse industry and a win to eliminate poverty in that area.”
Specifically, Stronach would like to see part of the Pimlico site redeveloped into an urban farm that would create jobs for residents of the surrounding neighborhood and dispense fresh produce to the rest of the city. He said such a plan could coexist with a state-of-the-art racing facility, though he acknowledged “it would take a huge amount of money.”
In a broad-ranging conversation that touched on his love of racing and agriculture, and his thoughts on free enterprise, Stronach said he hopes to inspire open dialogue rather than issue ultimatums regarding a possible move of the Preakness to Laurel Park.
“Perhaps we can sit down in an organized fashion, and maybe we can come to some meaningful solutions,” he said. “We’ve kicked it around internally a few times. We know there are emotions involved. We know there is history involved. We know this is complex.”
The impact of Stronach’s statements is complicated by the fact his daughter, Belinda, now serves as president and chairman of the company. She runs day-to-day operations while he serves as an honorary chairman who helps shape the Stronach Group’s big-picture philosophy.
State Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who represents Pimlico, said he appreciates Stronach’s interest in a broader conversation but does not see an urban farm as the best avenue for re-developing the track.
“I very much welcome him saying that he wants to address poverty,” said Rosenberg, a staunch advocate for keeping the Preakness at Pimlico. “But I think we can do that in a way that keeps racing going and is more commensurate with 21st century needs.”
A spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh did not reply to a call seeking comment.
Stronach weighed in at a time when state and city leaders are preparing to debate the future of the Preakness, Maryland’s largest annual sporting event, and the possibility of a costly rebuild at the race’s longtime home in West Baltimore.
In recent months, Stronach Group officials have said they’d save money by operating one Maryland track instead of two and could run a better version of the Preakness at Laurel Park — where they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on renovations — than at dilapidated Pimlico.
But they’ve also said the Preakness will remain at Pimlico next year and could stay there long-term if the city and state pay for a rebuild of the facility, likely to cost at least $300 million. All interested parties await the completion of a Maryland Stadium Authority study on the future of Pimlico, expected to be released before the 2019 General Assembly session.
Rosenberg said he’s confident the study will produce a “more productive” plan for the property than Stronach’s urban farm concept, one that might include job opportunities, educational components and retail elements such as a grocery store.
“It’s an extraordinarily complicated issue,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “If the horsemen had their druthers, Pimlico would remain open, because it’s not in the horsemen’s best interest to run year-round racing at one facility. But it’s complicated, because Pimlico does need to be rebuilt. Tradition aside, it cannot continue in its current state.”
The Stronach Group would need state permission to move the Preakness to Laurel unless the change was necessitated by disaster or emergency, according to legislation passed in 1987.
In addition to Pimlico and Laurel, the company owns and operates Santa Anita Park in California and Gulfstream Park in Florida.
Stronach spoke bullishly about Laurel Park, with its newer infrastructure and proximity to a commuter rail line.
“We could build maybe one of the super tracks, one of the great tracks,” he said. “We even could get the Breeders’ Cup there. In time, I think we could build the Preakness even to a much higher level.”
But he stopped short of saying the rise of Laurel would necessitate the shuttering of Pimlico.
Stronach plans to deepen his personal investment in Maryland by bringing part of his thoroughbred breeding operation to the state in the next two to three years.
At Pimlico, he envisions pairing with a Maryland university to create an organic food program that would employ neighborhood residents and improve nutrition by distributing locally grown food. He said the project could include farmland, affordable housing and recreation, daycare and school facilities. The Pimlico community could be granted a 20 percent ownership stake in the reimagined facility, he added.
He hopes the effort could become a prototype for similar agriculture-oriented developments in other American cities. He said he was inspired by Los Angeles-based urban farmer Ron Finley.
“If we could create a role model, where we could prove what we could do in the inner cities of America, wouldn’t that be great?” Stronach said.
He has not seriously broached his urban farm idea with city leaders.
“I spoke with the mayor, a nice lady, last year, and she feels very strongly about the Preakness,” he said. “And I said, ‘Look, I feel strongly about both. I feel strongly about the poverty and I feel strongly about meaningful jobs.’ I think it’s such an important issue. It’s not only the racing, it’s the poverty.”
Stronach knows the strong emotions surrounding a potential Preakness move could overshadow his attempts to broaden the discussion.
“Anytime there’s history involved, and emotions, it’s always more difficult,” he said. “But I still appeal to, ‘Can we create a win-win-win situation?’ If there’s good will on all sides, I’m sure we can come up with something meaningful.”