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Baltimore mayor sues Stronach Group to seize Pimlico, block move of Preakness to Laurel

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh sued the owners of Pimlico Race Course in hopes of blocking them from moving the Preakness Stakes or using state bonds to fund improvements at Laurel Park.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court, Pugh, on behalf of the city, also asks the court to grant ownership of the racetrack and the race to the city through condemnation.

In a statement, the Stronach Group, which owns the track and the race, said: “These actions are premature and unfounded.”

A spokesman for Pugh did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night.

A Maryland law passed in 1987 requires that the Preakness — the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown — can be moved from Pimlico “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

The lawsuit claims that the Stronach Group is “openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating.”

Citing The Baltimore Sun’s reporting, the lawsuit asserts that since 2011, Stronach has “systematically underinvested in Pimlico and invested instead in the Laurel Racetrack.”

Stronach has spent the majority of the state aid it receives for track improvements on Laurel Park for the past several years.

“Through the systemic divestment of Pimlico, Defendants could indeed manufacture an ‘emergency or disaster’ to justify transfer of the Preakness to Laurel, as undermaintained infrastructure begins to fail and crowds attending Pimlico races and the horses racing there are endangered,” the lawsuit states.

Moving the race or shuttering the track would harm the Park Heights and Pimlico neighborhoods around the track, which are significantly poorer than Laurel and Bowie, the lawsuit states.

“Divesting from Pimlico in order to invest in Laurel and Bowie creates further imbalances in Maryland’s economy,” the lawsuit states.

Stronach Group officials previously pledged to keep the Preakness at Pimlico through 2020. The 2019 race is planned for May 18.

But they also have made clear that they plan to invest in Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, in hopes of building a “super track” that could attract a high-profile race such as the Breeders’ Cup.

To accomplish that, Stronach is backing legislation in the General Assembly that would allow the Maryland Economic Development Corp. to issue $80 million worth of bonds to pay for improvements at Laurel and an additional $40 million in bonds for its Bowie Training Center. The bonds would be paid back with money from the state’s Racing Facilities Renewal Fund, which is funded by a portion of slot machine proceeds.

The bill has not yet passed with a little less than three weeks remaining in the 90-day annual General Assembly session, but it is the focus of intense discussions.

Baltimore lawmakers have raised concerns about that plan, worried that Stronach’s focus on Laurel might spell the demise of Pimlico. Sen. Bill Ferguson has proposed an amendment that would require Stronach to submit a development plan for the Pimlico site before any bonds for Laurel would be issued.

Baltimore County’s lawmakers are drawing up a letter to back Ferguson and the city’s lawmakers. They are concerned about the county also being financially harmed by the Preakness moving.

Another bill is pending that would create a work group of government officials and Stronach representatives to discuss redeveloping Pimlico. The Maryland Stadium Authority drew up an ambitious plan for an improved track with mixed-use development, but did not identify any way to pay for it.

The Stronach Group took control of Pimlico and Laurel in 2011 when it bought the Maryland Jockey Club.

If the court awards ownership of the track and the Preakness to the city, “These properties will be used to continue their historic role in the cultural traditions of Baltimore City, to foster employment and economic development in Baltimore, and in particular in the Park Heights Urban Renewal jurisdiction, as well as to protect the health and safety of the people attending the Preakness and other Pimlico events, as well as the employees and horses working there,” the city wrote in the lawsuit.

In addition to the mayor, the lawsuit has three other plaintiffs from Park Heights: Pamela Curtis, Jimmy Mitchell and Del. Tony Bridges. Bridges could not be reached for comment.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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