Baltimore’s acting mayor and several other elected officials said Monday that they view the Maryland Jockey Club’s closure of nearly 7,000 seats at Pimlico Race Course as retribution for losing a legislative fight with the city about how to spend state subsidies on horse racing tracks.
City officials are demanding evidence of the safety problems that prompted the closure of the grandstand’s seats and are sending building inspectors to assess what impact the jockey club’s decision might have on other seating areas at the 149-year-old racetrack in Northwest Baltimore.
The jockey club’s decision — announced Saturday — to shutter the oldest section at Old Hilltop came a little more than a month before the track’s lucrative Preakness weekend and just days after Maryland lawmakers ended the 2019 legislative session without passing a company-backed bill to invest state funds at Laurel Park instead of Pimlico.
Officials with The Stronach Group, which owns the jockey club, said the decision was based on an engineering firm’s findings they received in late March that 6,670 seats in the Old Grandstand’s open-air section are “no longer suitable to sustain that level of load bearing weight.”
Several elected officials said Monday that they want the company to release the engineering report and question why it did not notify state lawmakers about the findings before the General Assembly session ended April 8. The funding bill favored by Stronach did not end in defeat until that night, and the decision to close the seats was made a few days later.
“You have a group that for 17 years has systematically disinvested in Pimlico and then, after the city folks who were negotiating during the session were successful, all of a sudden they have this emergency just shortly after the session closes,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. “It was questionable timing.”
Davis said Young, who is acting mayor while Catherine Pugh remains on sick leave, asked city agencies to look into the conditions at Pimlico.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development said the agency would examine whether the seating closure could affect the rest of Pimlico’s ability to host tens of thousands of guests during next month’s Preakness Stakes and Black-Eyed Susan Day.
“We are now having our building inspection team request a copy of the engineer’s report and conduct an inspection,” said department spokeswoman Tammy Hawley. “We are also reaching out for the fire marshal’s office on the matter.”
Stronach officials said they would not release the engineer’s report because they are still reviewing its findings. The company does not conduct annual engineering reviews of the structure, they said.
Bill Hecht, a Stronach executive, said the company commissioned the engineering report after the Maryland Stadium Authority’s December study concluded that Pimlico “had outlived its usefulness.”
“We felt it was important to learn the implications of that,” Hecht said. “At the beginning of this year, we hired an independent engineering firm to do a thorough assessment of the facility. We received those findings in late March and have been determining the best way to proceed since that time. Our decision to decommission the seats was made late last week.”
He said the legislative session had nothing to do with the closure.
“This decision should in no way be interpreted as anything other than ensuring the safety of our guests and employees,” Hecht said.
The company acted on the seat closure, he said, “so that people who have previously purchased grandstand tickets can make alternative arrangements.”
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said the Old Grandstand’s condition was a “relevant fact” that lawmakers should have been alerted to as debate over the funding bill continued after Stronach had received the findings.
“It is curious that this was made public after the legislative session,” Rosenberg said. “Were 6,000 people put in harm’s way by sitting in that grandstand before?”
A 2017 Maryland Stadium Authority report did flag the conditions. It also stated that the jockey club had conducted a review of the structure but that it did not release its findings.
“While the historic structure has renovation potential from an architectural/design perspective, the structural integrity of the plywood decking and exposed steel need to be assessed,” states a “Key Facilities Deficiencies” section of the 2017 stadium authority report. “The facilities are in generally sound condition according to the Management’s description of a previously conducted structural report.”
But the jockey club did not provide the structural analysis to the stadium authority team conducting the assessment.
“It is our understanding that the structure of all Grandstand/Clubhouse buildings are at maximum capacity,” the stadium authority report stated at the time.
The stadium authority’s report in December again raised concerns about Pimlico’s overall conditions, but no city or state agency took action.
A stadium authority spokeswoman said the agency “has no ownership or operational responsibilities at Pimlico.” And city building inspectors respond to complaints about possible violations of building codes and conduct inspections only when new permits are filed — including ones from the jockey club to build temporary structures during the Preakness, for which Pimlico hosted nearly 135,000 people last year.
Mike Hopkins, the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said his agency “was not aware of any prior structural issues.”
City, state and neighborhood representatives all said the condition of the Old Grandstand is evidence of how Stronach has favored the use of slots-funded state subsidies at Laurel Park. Over the past five years, the company has used 87 percent of $45 million in track-renovation subsidies from the state on Laurel instead of Pimlico.
They worry that the move to close the seats is the first step in trying to declare an emergency at the track that could allow the company to move all its operations to Laurel.
A Maryland law passed in 1987 requires that the Preakness — the second leg in horse racing’s Triple Crown — can be moved from Pimlico “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.” Stronach Group officials previously pledged to keep the Preakness at Pimlico through 2020. The 2019 race is planned for May 18.
As part of Baltimore’s fight against Stronach’s plan this year, Pugh filed a lawsuit against Stronach that states that the company’s spending at Laurel “has accelerated the deterioration of Pimlico.”
Marcus Pollock, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance, said his community organization that focuses on the neighborhoods near Pimlico was not surprised by the seat closure. Pollock said he expects more such announcements from the company.
“They’re trying to kill it off by default,” Pollock said. “Once they have an emergency they’ll say, ‘We have to take [the Preakness] to Laurel.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if the bathrooms stopped working” during Preakness.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said he finds “it hard to believe these conditions materialized so quickly a month before the race.”