A lawyer for the Maryland Jockey Club says there is nothing to hide in the report that led it to shutter nearly 7,000 seats in Pimlico’s grandstand just before the Preakness Stakes. The attorney, Alan Rifkin, says it merely reinforces observations in a Maryland Stadium Authority study on the deterioration of the historic racecourse, and the city’s own engineers have made their own examination that backs up its conclusions. “From my perspective, anybody in the world can have a copy. There’s nothing in the report besides Pimlico is deteriorating,” Mr. Rifkin says.
Yet the jockey club is refusing to release it — even to the Maryland Racing Commission — without a signed confidentiality agreement. If there’s nothing to hide here, why is the jockey club intent on hiding it?
The jockey club’s explanation is that the city of Baltimore has filed a lawsuit against its parent company, the Stronach Group, seeking, among other things, to exercise its powers of eminent domain to seize the racetrack, the Preakness and a wide variety of tangible and intangible assets, in part on the grounds that the track’s owners have deliberately allowed Pimlico to deteriorate as part of a scheme to force the Preakness to move out of Baltimore and to Laurel Park. The physical condition of Pimlico is central to the case, this document is directly related to that topic, and thus it must be handled through the discovery process, Mr. Rifkin says. (Indeed, City Solicitor Andre Davis had already requested the document before the racing commission did.) Thus, the jockey club has the right to insist that the document remain confidential, he says, and it is doing so, as any competently represented defendant in a civil suit would.
As the jockey club sees it, the simple answer is for the city to drop its lawsuit, and then everybody can see the report.
That might happen eventually. Parts of the suit became moot after the General Assembly adjourned without passing legislation the jockey club had sought to provide Maryland Economic Development Authority bonds to help finance improvements at Laurel Park. And the lawsuit represented the culmination of an aggressive, confrontational strategy Mayor Catherine Pugh employed this year in an effort to secure the Preakness' future in Baltimore. But with her current and future leadership of the city in doubt, there’s no way to know whether that strategy will stay in place much longer. (The jockey club also argues that the suit should be thrown out because of Maryland’s century-old consolidation of horse racing regulation on the state rather than local level.)
But the report is a matter of public concern that transcends the litigation between the city and the Stronach Group. It is state law that requires the Preakness be run in Baltimore absent a natural disaster. It is state money that subsidizes racetrack capital improvements and keeps the racing industry afloat through purse enhancements. And it’s the entire state that has reason to question whether the Stronach Group has fulfilled its role as steward of Old Hilltop. The undeniable pattern of investment in Laurel while letting Pimlico crumble has all the hallmarks of a deliberate strategy to force the state’s hand to allow the Preakness to be moved, and the timing of the jockey club’s decision to shutter a section of the grandstand — just before the Preakness and amid a heated debate over racetrack capital funding in the General Assembly — seemed entirely convenient.
Playing hardball on the release of the report may be smart legal strategy, but it’s not smart political strategy. If the public has doubts that the Stronach Group is acting in good faith, choosing to keep this report out of the public domain is only deepening them.