Del. Nick Mosby was not convinced Friday to stop calling for withdraw of legislation that would boost racetrack funding after touring housing at Laurel Park racetrack alongside County Executive Steuart Pittman.
The two politicians were joined by horse racing officials as they toured a variety of the dorms at the Laurel Park racetrack. There are 112 residential units on site. After seeing the housing — small rooms with cracks, limited heating and shared bathrooms and showers — Mosby said racing officials should improve living conditions before using state money to improve the racetrack.
Horse racing officials said they are working to build a new housing facility and are awaiting permits.
“Normalizing these types of living conditions isn’t right,” Mosby said. “I would never let anyone I cared about live in these conditions.”
The Baltimore delegate has called on Sen. Pam Beidle, D-Linthicum, and Del. Mark Chang, D-Glen Burnie, to withdraw their bills changing how the state funds racetrack renewal funding and freezing casino money earmarked for the racetracks. The Stronach Group owns the land. Workers living on the site are employed by jockeys and trainers and are cared for under the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
Pittman and Mosby were shown a few units at Laurel Park along with a bathroom, a recreation room and a “ladies” lounge. The rooms are small with some featuring cracked ceilings, two beds and heating and air conditioning units provided the residents. Residents share a bathroom and shower, which Mosby said was in poor condition.
There are 40 nicer apartment style units and 72 dorms on the Laurel Park site, with most of the units holding two people, according to information provided by The Stronach Group. The dorms are free while the apartments, called Laurel Commons, cost $200 a month or $150 when shared.
After Mosby’s public comments on living conditions, Pittman called for an immediate inspection of the site. The results of that inspection revealed dozens of units with issues ranging from non-working smoke detectors, cooking equipment, unsanitary conditions, missing ceiling, outlets without covers and other violations. The racetrack has 30 days to correct the errors.
“The Maryland Jockey Club is fully committed to modernizing and improving the living quarters that are provided at Laurel for all of the backstretch workers,” The Stronach Group said in a statement. “We expect to have a new barn with 115 dorms complete by end of year. We recognize that some of the infractions on the current dorms are minor and some are more substantial. Regardless, we will be correcting any cited issues and expect to have all completed by early next week, many of which will be completed by end of day tomorrow.”
As an equestrian businessman, Pittman said he is familiar with the backstretch lifestyle. It isn’t glamorous, he said, but people choose to do it because they love it or it is the only job they can get.
Pittman supports increasing investment at Laurel Park as it could improve the lives of workers.
“The backstretch of racetrack is known for not being a pretty place,” Pittman said. “In Maryland, we are trying to change that.”
Donna O’Connor has lived at Laurel Park for 20 years. Her room — about 10 by 10 feet — is full of items she has collected, including incense, books, movies and crystals. The space is small enough that only about three people can fit inside comfortably, but O’Connor said she enjoys the life. She is a hot walker who helps calm down horses after training.
After she hit a rough time in her life, she found work with the horses. Free housing and a job are a benefit, she said. Racing officials did not make every resident available for comment.
“No complaints,” O’Connor said. “The upgrades they made in the last 20 years have been great.”
Those upgrades include yoga classes, and in the future a TV in the “ladies” lounge and other amenities. Workers are cared for by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. The association advocates for residents and aims to provide more services such as health care, transportation, education funding, a pension plan and more.
The lives of these residents are important and the association tries to provide health care and other services to care for them, said David Richardson, Executive Director of the association.
Richardson said he hoped the scrutiny of the residential units would help expedite the new, planned housing at Laurel Park.
“This is a 100-year-old facility,” Richardson said. “You go into any facility that is 100 years old, you are going to have issues. And we’ve got our issues and we’ve got our problems, and we would like to get forward and start utilizing this (casino money) to get into some new facilities.”
Beidle and Chang said they have no plans to withdraw their legislation, SB 833 and HB 990. Those bills would expand the state’s and The Stronach Group’s ability to leverage bonds connected to casino money. It would generate $120 million of funding that could be used to improve Laurel Park and the Bowie training center.
Public hearings on the legislation have already been held, but neither bill has been voted out of committee. Beidle said she didn’t know if the committee would move forward on the legislation.
“He is looking to defend something in his district, and I’m looking to defend something in my district,” Beidle said. “No one should live in unsafe or unhealthy conditions.”
This investment has worried Baltimore officials who believe the ultimate goal is moving The Preakness Stakes, a Triple Crown race, from Pimlico in Baltimore. The city has filed a lawsuit against The Stronach Group alleging the company is moving the Preakness in violation of Maryland law. The law only allows the Preakness to move due to a disaster or emergency.
Stronach has committed to Pimlico through 2020 and Laurel Park is viewed from the future.
“We have been pretty clear that we believe Laurel will be the super track of the future for Maryland, and that’s exactly what the bill is proposed to do,” said Bill Hecht, CEO of U.S. Real Estate for The Stronach Group. “We continue to have dialogues with the city to find the best solution for everyone.”
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The Baltimore Sun contributed to this story.