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Decision time for Preakness, Pimlico and horse racing in Maryland

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s letter ripping into the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club was shocking in its tone, and it probably didn’t much help the city’s cause of maintaining the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. We would not have thought much could be done to build sympathy for the Stronach family, given its history in Maryland, but she may have found a way.

In terms of the letter’s content, though, the mayor wasn’t wrong. The Stronach Group clearly is allowing Pimlico to wither and die to further its cause of unifying Maryland thoroughbred racing (including the second leg of the Triple Crown) at Laurel Park. That was the gist of a letter Stronach sent to state leaders earlier this month, it is the purpose of legislation Stronach is backing this year, and it is the unmistakable message of the company’s Maryland investments during the last decade or more. Stronach officials wrote that Pimlico “has reached the end of its useful life as a major event facility,” but if so, that is the fate its owners chose for it.

The reality is, Stronach is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the state, and both sides could wind up getting hurt. State law says that the Preakness may not be moved from Pimlico except in the case of a natural disaster. Stronach has committed to holding the race there this year but has made no promises after that. The implied threat is that the company could say in 2020 that it will hold the race at Laurel or not at all. What would the legislature do then? Would it rally behind Baltimore? Would it cave to Stronach lest Maryland lose the race altogether? Or would such a scenario cause a broader break in the state’s traditional support for the racing industry?

Mayor Pugh clearly feels strongly about keeping the Preakness at Pimlico, and she is pushing for all parties involved to devise a financing plan for a comprehensive redevelopment of the racetrack and its property as outlined in a Maryland Stadium Authority study. Stronach called the $424 million price tag for that plan absurd, given that Pimlico has only two meaningful days of racing per year (and an overall meet of just 12 days). But we think it’s more plausible and fiscally reasonable than the overall price tag might suggest. Costs could reasonably be divided between the track owners, city and state and financed in large part by extending the carve-out from state slot machine gambling revenue that goes toward racetrack facilities renewal projects, which is otherwise set to expire.

The question is whether Baltimore has the clout in Annapolis to rally the General Assembly behind such a plan. Baltimore’s legislative delegation is not what it once was in numbers or influence (with some notable exceptions, like House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Del. Maggie McIntosh), and it has major competing priorities, principally state support for school construction and operations and for fighting crime. If push came to shove, Stronach may figure that the other 166 members of the General Assembly would be reluctant to pour money into a track in Baltimore and would be perfectly willing to abandon Pimlico if it means Maryland keeps the Preakness (and its attendant prestige and economic impact) somewhere in the state.

But the other possibility that both Stronach and the city need to consider is that the General Assembly just doesn’t care about horse racing or even the Preakness as much as it once did. The presiding officers of the House and Senate may be the same ones who agreed to carve out money for horse racing in the legislation that legalized slots back in 2007, but there has been massive turnover in the composition of both chambers since then. Just as horse racing has struggled to attract younger fans to the tracks, its traditions hold much less sway over the new legislators who increasingly fill the seats in the General Assembly. How long will it be before someone starts asking why the state is handing $71 million a year to the horse racing industry at a time when it is scrounging for money to fund education?

We continue to believe the best outcome is a rebirth of Pimlico along the lines of the stadium authority study so that it becomes a year-round venue for activities in addition to horse racing and the locus of mixed-use development that connects the facility with its surrounding communities. But accomplishing that requires buy-in from the rest of the state, and Baltimore needs to get a gut-check from the General Assembly about its willingness to play its part. If the city and state present a truly united front, there is a chance they can bring a reluctant Stronach on board — after all, the company surely doesn’t want to risk losing the revenue from Preakness, much less being known as the entity that killed the century-plus tradition of the Triple Crown.

But if that’s not going to happen, Baltimore needs to figure it out, and fast. Time is on Stronach’s side. Every year that passes by makes the redevelopment of Pimlico more difficult and the relative attractiveness of Laurel greater. The city has leverage now, but it might not forever. If the support isn’t there to redevelop Pimlico, Baltimore needs to figure out what kind of deal it can cut with Stronach and the state to protect the communities around the track and further its other priorities. Losing the Preakness and all that it means economically and culturally would be tragic for Baltimore; losing it and getting nothing in return would be worse.

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