Owners' actions argue for seizure of horse tracks

Eminent domain, which gives government authority to forcibly purchase private property, is a last resort in countries that aren't run by juntas or Politburos.

It's potent and potentially abusive. It should be exercised only in matters of public interest and when private parties repeatedly fail tests of competence, reasonableness and good faith. Only an extraordinarily feckless company can make a good case for its assets to be seized by the state.

The owners of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park are working hard at making that case. Their latest contribution came Friday, when Penn National Gaming, co-owner of the racetracks through the Maryland Jockey Club, said that despite everything that has happened it would seek a license for slot machines at Laurel Park.

Perhaps Penn would also like to rerun the 2010 Preakness Stakes, the second gem in the Triple Crown, held at Pimlico last spring. A colt named Lookin At Lucky won. Bets were paid. History was updated.

But accepting the results of yesterday's contests doesn't seem to be something Penn or the Jockey Club are very good at. Maybe you wouldn't be either if your losing streak was as pronounced as theirs, but that wouldn't make your cause correct.

The legislation enabling slots in Maryland was written with Laurel Park in mind. All the Jockey Club and owner Frank Stronach had to do was deliver a qualified bid, with a multimillion-dollar deposit check, by the specified deadline. They failed.

They challenged the bidding process in an attempt to get their offer reconsidered. That didn't work. They tried to stop the Anne Arundel County Council from awarding a needed zoning change to a competing slots project backed by developer David Cordish. That failed.

They financed a multimillion-dollar referendum and advertising campaign in the hope that voters would reject Cordish's Arundel Mills mall project. Voters overwhelmingly approved the project.

To suggest now that Laurel Park is still a viable candidate for slots is to insult the voters, the legislature and the entire state.

Maryland already limits private-property rights in the name of history and tradition. Owners of historic buildings find to their chagrin that they can't just bulldoze the places and build a parking garage.

Think of the Jockey Club as a stately Colonial mansion run by absentee landlords. The shutters sag. Termites have set up house. The whole thing may collapse if the state doesn't do something.

Penn National's obsession with slots is more evidence, if any were needed, that it and Stronach aren't the right owners for the tracks. Penn didn't buy its Jockey Club stake because it wanted to hold thoroughbred meets.

It just seems to want a slots license, as demonstrated by its proposal to drastically downsize Maryland racing after it lost the Arundel Mills referendum. Penn might also be interested in the 68th Street Dump superfund site in Baltimore County if the state allowed slots there.

The rules have been set. Stronach and Penn got every chance to follow them. From the start there was no guarantee slots would end up at a racetrack. From the start the plan was to revive Pimlico and Laurel Park by using slots proceeds to fatten winners' purses.

That's still the plan. But the Jockey Club won't give it a chance. Its latest proposal is to run a little more than half the number of races in 2011 that it ran this year — 77 meets. At least that's better than the 47 days it originally suggested — a proposal rejected by the Maryland Racing Commission.

But it's still not a full schedule. These landlords aren't just letting the building get shabby. They're holding it hostage and threatening to burn it to the ground if they don't get their way.

On Monday the Maryland Horse Council urged Gov. Martin O'Malley to begin the process to seize the tracks and resell them to a responsible owner. There are plenty who might be interested in buying them. Cordish. Churchill Downs. Technology entrepreneur Halsey Minor.

O'Malley ought to warm up the eminent-domain boilers. There comes a time when you stop enabling a whining, passive-aggressive partner.

Having just spent 10 days in China, where entire neighborhoods are uprooted in the cause of redevelopment and moved at the will of a few government officials, I have no illusions about the consistency of eminent-domain seizures with free-market principles. But on its present heading the Jockey Club is on a collision course with the Politburo.