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Future of the Preakness — whether in Baltimore or Laurel — lands before Annapolis lawmakers

About 60 residents of Park Heights rallied in Annapolis to keep the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in their Northwest Baltimore neighborhood. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun video)

Michael Gaines, executive pastor of Manna Bible Baptist Church, did not parse his words Friday when he addressed state lawmakers on the future of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, the historic track just across the street from his Park Heights pulpit.

“If you take the jewel out of Park Heights,” Gaines said, in a nod to the Preakness’ status as the second jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown, “you will sign the death warrant certificate for that community.”

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The sentiment was one echoed time and again as boosters of Baltimore — from Mayor Catherine Pugh to longtime residents of Park Heights — urged a different, brighter future for Pimlico before the House Ways and Means Committee. It met Friday in Annapolis to consider two bills that could decide the fate of the track and the future of horse racing in Maryland.

Pimlico supporters urged passage of a bill that would require The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and a track at Laurel Park, to meet with city and state officials about redeveloping Pimlico at a cost of more than $400 million. A proposal to do so would keep the Preakness in Baltimore, while adding other entertainment options, housing and shops. It would pre-empt a competing plan from The Stronach Group to move the Preakness to Laurel Park.

Others in the room pushed a separate bill that would help fund a $120 million redevelopment of Laurel Park, into what Stronach officials call a “super track.” Passage of that bill, the Baltimore backers said, would preclude the Pimlico plan by redirecting key state funding to Laurel. Already in the last five years, The Stronach Group has spent nearly 90 percent of its state horse track renovation subsidies on Laurel Park, rather than Pimlico.

Pugh called the bill backed by Stronach "premature," given that she has hopes for the working group and the discussions it would have about the future of horse racing at Pimlico. She said cutting funding from Pimlico would be "unconscionable."

Stronach officials said Friday that they understood the concerns of Park Heights residents, but framed the relocation of the Preakness to Laurel Park — which would require overturning a state law that requires it be held in Baltimore — in different terms. They described it not as a death knell for Park Heights, but a lifeline for horse racing statewide.

Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo said Maryland must consolidate racing onto one track to be successful, and cannot sustain two tracks. He said other states have seen similar consolidation. And he said if Laurel Park is allowed to become a “super track,” Maryland horse racing and the tens of thousands of people engaged in the industry statewide would thrive.

Ritvo said that if the city and state pay to have racing at Pimlico, his company would work with them, but it won’t use its own funding to keep horse racing there. He said the Pimlico property can be redeveloped — without horse racing — in many of the same ways that Baltimore leaders have pushed for.

Committee members seemed open to passage of a working group to consider the future of Pimlico, but questioned the doomsday outlook of the visitors and officials from Baltimore, and were interested in the potential benefits of a Laurel super track.

Del. Jason Buckel, a Republican from Allegany County, asked Ritvo whether closing Pimlico Race Course and consolidating at Laurel Park would have any impact on “the horsemen and the horse farms and all the economic impact that goes along with the industry that we try to support.”

“If Pimlico doesn’t have race days, if it doesn’t exist as a race course … do you think that would have any impact whatsoever on the number of horse farms supported [and] folks in Baltimore County and Harford County being able to maintain their [agriculture] communities and race?” Buckel asked. “Would it change that?”

Ritvo said it would impact it — in a positive way.

“We would have more breeders, more farms, more people racing here because we would have a super track at Laurel and we’d draw more people,” Ritvo said.

“Whatever scenario happens, [the Preakness] is going to end up in Maryland — is that correct?” asked Del. Kevin Hornberger, a Republican from Cecil County. Ritvo said it would.

The committee did not plan to vote Friday on the legislation.

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The debates around the two bills followed a morning rally to keep the Preakness at Pimlico by about 60 residents of Park Heights, who were bused to Annapolis. The Park Heights residents chanted in opposition to a change of venue for the race with a clear message that their neighborhood is on the rise and should remain its home.

“We’re here to fight. We’re all here for that,” said Frances Watkins, 74, who has lived in Park Heights since she was 2 years old. “We are not going to let them take Pimlico.”

A new study by the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute, released Friday, said the Preakness would generate $52.7 million in economic activity each year if the race remained at a rebuilt Pimlico. Pugh said the Preakness already generated $33 million a year for Baltimore, which needs such economic anchors.

Watkins said her family had always been connected to Pimlico. Her father died there after winning a big amount of money while playing the horses, and then suffering a heart attack, she said. And she still remembers race days as a child, when her mother would prepare codfish cakes and salmon cakes that she would sell to the jockeys. The race still means big business for local residents — something they need, she said.

“It goes back ever since I was a little girl,” she said. “We need the money for our community.”

John Henderson, president of the Holy Nativity St. John’s Development Corp., which does work in the neighborhood, said many people have a vested interest in keeping the race as an economic engine in Park Heights. If it were to leave for Laurel, he said, “The question becomes: What do we do with the largest vacant lot in Baltimore city?”

“This whole issue about Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes is critical for the continued progress of Baltimore,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat and sponsor of the working group bill. “This means the world to all of us who live in Baltimore.”

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