The Stronach Group has spent almost 90 percent of its state renovation subsidies to pay for improvements at Laurel Park rather than at Pimlico Race Course, state records show. (Kevin Richardson, Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore residents, elected officials and others fighting for the revitalization of historic Pimlico Race Course blasted the racetrack’s owner Tuesday for investing the vast majority of its state renovation subsidies into its other horse racing track, Laurel Park.
Longtime community advocate Deborah Woolford said The Stronach Group’s spending showed the Pimlico owners “obviously don’t care” about the surrounding Park Heights neighborhood. City Councilman Brandon Scott, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore, called it a “direct slap in the face.” And Lisa Budlow, CEO of the nonprofit Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., said it represented “a clear example of disinvestment in an area that needs the opposite.”
Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, called the lack of attention to the 149-year-old track that is home to the Preakness Stakes “a deliberate effort to disinvest in what has been an iconic and strong tradition, truly ignoring what could be a catalyst for redevelopment of a challenged community.”
The criticisms followed reporting by The Baltimore Sun that, since 2013, The Stronach Group has used 87 percent of its state subsidies to pay for renovations at Laurel Park. That meant of $45 million — $22.5 million from the state’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal program, the rest in matching funds the company was required to spend — Stronach spent $39 million at Laurel and just $6 million at Pimlico.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the company, continued to defend that spending Tuesday, suggesting that the company had spent money at Pimlico on things to improve the experience of visitors — televisions and WiFi, for example — but not on larger infrastructure that is on its last legs no matter what the future holds for the deteriorated property.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh accused the Maryland Jockey Club of wanting to abandon the city for a preferred Laurel location, saying the firm “allowed Pimlico to deteriorate" by spending most of its state-funded improvements in Laurel, not Pimlico.
“It will collapse one day. It’s in very bad condition and it’s not our fault. We’ve only owned the place 15 years,” Ritvo said. “It’s lived its life span, and everyone agrees that we need to stop kicking the can down the road.”
Ritvo said there are nearly 160 days of racing a year at Laurel Park, compared with a dozen at Pimlico, and his company had made the decision that investments needed to be made to support not just the historic legacy of the Preakness — the second leg of horse racing’s vaunted Triple Crown and Pimlico’s crown jewel — but the future of horse racing in the state as a whole.
“The Preakness is a very valuable component to Maryland racing, there's no question about it. But what drives the jobs, what drives the green space, what drives the ecosystem, is the day in, day out racing,” he said. “This is about the state of Maryland and the economic impact that racing has on the entire state, not about one day or one race or one city.”
In recent years, in no small part due to state laws that directed slots revenue toward purses paid to winning horses, the industry has grown in key areas. Larger purses draw more competitors, which draw more bets. The Maryland Jockey Club, Stronach’s affiliate that runs Pimlico and Laurel, reported total betting in 2017 of $627 million — up about 12 percent from $560 million in 2016.
The Stronach Group has said it wants to continue improving the industry in Maryland, and that the way to do that is to grow the 300-acre Laurel Park into a “super track” — a plan that can’t work at 120-acre Pimlico.
It’s not the Preakness Stakes, but the Maryland Jockey Club has decided to move another event away from Pimlico Race Course. The Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show, a showcase for retired thoroughbreds, will be on hiatus until at least 2020.
Stronach broke no laws by spending most of the subsidy funding at Laurel, where it built new barns. It was transparent about the spending with the Maryland Racing Commission, which approved it. Many in the industry praise the company for being a good steward of Maryland horse racing in recent years, particularly amid all the political posturing that has animated the discussion around Pimlico’s future.
In Annapolis, Mayor Catherine Pugh and other city legislators are pushing for legislation that would require Stronach to work with the city and state to come up with a plan to move forward on a $424 million Pimlico redevelopment proposal drawn up as part of a study by the Maryland Stadium Authority. But Stronach officials are pushing legislation that would permit gambling proceeds to go toward construction of a “super track” at Laurel Park and a training center at the former Bowie Race Track.
Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, has said that a letter Pugh sent to The Stronach Group criticizing it for its Laurel plans rubbed many in the industry the wrong way. He said “extraordinary efforts” by Stronach, horsemen and breeders in recent years have rebuilt Maryland’s racing industry.
Ritvo said he understands the concerns among Baltimoreans that the Preakness — and perhaps horse racing altogether — could leave Pimlico, but thinks city residents should be more optimistic about new opportunities on the property.
“We believe all the citizens of the city should be more open-minded about what the Preakness does for two days a year there, compared to what could be done there all year around,” Ritvo said.
Officials in Annapolis and Baltimore are wrestling with a proposal by the owner of Maryland’s two largest horse racing tracks to turn Laurel Park into a “super track” capable of hosting some of racing’s largest events – perhaps even the coveted Preakness Stakes.
He said he is spreading that message in meetings with community leaders, in which he is asking for ideas about what — other than a horse track — could be built on the property.
“We will continue to participate in those conversations even as we are being attacked for being not good corporate citizens,” he said. “We are saying we do care, we are reaching out to community stakeholders.”
Many of those stakeholders aren’t having it.
Elizabeth Wiseman, a resident of nearby Cylburn for more than 50 years, said she was among a group of community leaders who met with Ritvo last week and took “a strong stand” against moving the Preakness out of Pimlico.
“We were pretty adamant that we wanted the city and the state to work harder to come up with something more amenable to keep the Preakness here at Pimlico,” she said. “We want them to look outside the box to keep it here.”
In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan and legislative leaders, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said The Stronach Group would be happy to leave Pimlico Race Course as nothing more than a "fenced-in vacant lot." She blasted the track's owners after they urged construction of a "super track" at Laurel Park.
Sen. Jill P. Carter said she is considering drawing up emergency legislation to remove the subsidy Stronach receives, calling it “unconscionable that they want to pour all their money into Laurel and do nothing for Pimlico.”
Del. Cheryl Glenn, chairwoman of the city’s delegation to Annapolis, said lawmakers knew Stronach preferred Laurel to Pimlico but did not know the extent of the company’s spending on Laurel over Pimlico. She said lawmakers plan on “fighting aggressively any efforts to build up Laurel as a ‘super track’ at the expense of Pimlico,” including a bill to allow Stronach to quicken upgrades at Laurel by using state racetrack renewal funds to borrow money for the project in the form of bonds.
They also will fight any effort to overturn a law that requires the Preakness be held in Baltimore, she said.
Woolford, the longtime community advocate, said despite those assurances, she worries about the future of Park Heights without horse racing. She said The Stronach Group’s decision to invest in Laurel, and not in Pimlico, reflects a pattern of disinvestment in the community.
“This ain’t no overnight thought. This was very calculated,” she said. “They obviously don’t care about [Pimlico] because they let it break down, put no money into it, took what they could get and moved on. So what’s going to happen to that lot? It’s a huge lot.”