For those with only a casual interest in horse racing, the idea that Baltimore might one day claim victory in its race to save the Preakness must seem hard to believe. When last we heard, the city’s efforts were looking like a long shot, its lawsuit against The Stronach Group withdrawn in June, the matter left in the hands of negotiators. The owners of the Maryland Jockey Club had waged a years-long campaign of attrition against the city track and clearly intended to move their greatest asset, the second jewel of the Triple Crown included, to Laurel. What hope for Pimlico? Some king’s ransom bounty that Baltimore taxpayers could ill afford? The Maryland Stadium Authority’s estimated price tag to make Pimlico viable was an astronomical $424 million. With so much acrimony built up, could the two sides even muster a serious conversation?
And then, out of nowhere, this: a plan. After months of talks, it appears a reasonable compromise is at hand that keeps the Preakness in Baltimore, brings much-needed renovations to Pimlico, allows for additional development of the property (including Sinai Hospital’s expansion plans), involves greater community access including athletic fields and use of the club house for special events, and will be paid for chiefly through existing state revenues from gambling. That last point is crucial. Essentially, the plan requires pooling gambling-generated funds like the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account and local impact payments to leverage public and private borrowing. The bottom line? A total of $375 million in renovations with roughly $200 million for Pimlico and $175 million for Laurel. Oh, and all of that disbursement will be overseen by the Maryland Stadium Authority, another vital protection given the Maryland Jockey Club’s history with public subsidies.
Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly will have to approve enabling legislation to make this happen but given the stakes involved — and early endorsements from Baltimore’s mayor and county executives in Towson and Annapolis, that seems a reasonable bet. After all, it’s not just Pimlico’s future but the future of horse racing in Maryland that’s at stake.
How a $424 million renovation turned into one less than half that cost is attributed to fundamental changes in what a race track of the future should look like. To put it simply, it means less bricks and mortar and more temporary elements, so-called “overlays” like luxury suites and seating that are built for events and then taken down for the off-season. This is not only less expensive but perhaps better suited to changing public tastes and a greater fondness for open air amenities. There were hints of that last spring when former Jockey Club CEO Joseph DeFrancis opined that a Preakness-worthy Pimlico could be built for half the original MSA estimate. We would say this much for Mr. DeFrancis, he can still handicap a race.
Naturally, there are still questions to be answered. The Stronachs are serious about attracting the highly-lucrative Breeders Cup, for instance, it would be comforting to know that their preference isn’t to stage it at Laurel Park. There’s also the matter of making sure that this renovation-light approach is sustainable — that the Jockey Club won’t be back in Annapolis or at City Hall at some future date expecting some major handout because, once again, the stands are collapsing or the toilets are backed up. And, of course, it means that the legislature will need to commit to keeping the track renewal payments on the books and not allowing the program to sunset. Otherwise, there would not be the means to pay off the 30-year bonds. Given the heated debate over Kirwan Commission funding for K-12 education, things could get sticky.
Still, it’s hard not to be filled with optimism that the seemingly impossible task of keeping the Preakness in Baltimore is actually going to happen. That’s no small thing. The economic value of the race has been pegged at more than $50 million a year. But it’s really bigger than that. How wonderful it has been to see Baltimore host this nationally televised event and see the city at the center of a festive celebration and not merely defending itself from the latest ill-considered White House taunts over whether it’s fit for human habitation?
This plan may not be perfect. Officials in Anne Arundel County are likely to be disappointed to not host the Preakness. But then so will Baltimore racing fans as Laurel increasingly becomes the center of racing in the state (it will have the horse stables and the training track). Bowie is likely to lose its training facility but the land may ultimately be donated to nearby Bowie State University. That’s what compromise requires, a little bit of give and take.