For his first Preakness as governor but as no stranger to Baltimore’s premier horse racing event, Gov. Wes Moore donned a light blue and gray plaid jacket, khakis and a hat striped with the state colors as he vowed to support the future of Maryland’s beleaguered but still-cherished sport.
“The horse racing industry has had a very long and important history in the state of Maryland and I’m committed to making sure that it has a long and productive future in the state of Maryland,” Moore said outside the winner’s circle Saturday evening at Pimlico Race Course.
A Baltimore Democrat, Moore’s pledge echoed those of other elected officials. In between roaming the grounds and placing bets, they spoke about the unofficial topic of the day — long-awaited plans to redevelop the track and reinvigorate the industry across the state.
“I want this to be the last Preakness where there is uncertainty about what the future of Pimlico and horse racing in Maryland is. We’ve got to make a decision,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson.
This year’s race came just weeks after Moore, Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones signed into law the latest attempt to salvage the embattled plans to improve Pimlico and the Laurel Park track in Anne Arundel County. With the creation of a Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, the lawmakers sought to examine the best way to move forward with the redevelopment of the tracks three years after they authorized $375 million in bonds for the project. Since then, the plans have stalled as their estimated costs have nearly doubled.
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Support from legislators also has waned, and questions about whether the state should continue supporting the industry only will increase as the uncertainty continues, said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.
“It’s like Lucy and the football, where every time we think we’ve come to a solution, the football gets pulled and everyone’s left guessing where we’re going to be,” Ferguson said.
Moore said he was eager to hear recommendations from the new nine-member authority. He declined to comment on a suggestion that plans consolidate around Pimlico, instead of including Laurel Park. He said he’s open to conversations about additional state funds, while stressing it’s too early to say if that will be prudent.
“We have to make sure that we have a strong return on that investment, a societal return on that investment,” Moore said.
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott was upbeat as he talked about the day and the state’s support of the Baltimore tradition.
“I’m a Park Heights boy,” said Scott, who grew up in the surrounding neighborhood. He spoke about how investments there, including in the Preakness, can have an impact on a “neighborhood that’s been ignored for far too long.”
Asked whether a horse’s death Saturday and other recent deaths at Laurel Park could harm support for those investments, Scott said the larger industry is dealing with those safety concerns. Those issues should be considered, he said, but making an investment of a “historical nature” for the community can be discussed at the same time.
Moore, meanwhile, called safety for riders and horses a “foundational” part of future plans.
“That is going to be of utmost priority in terms of how are we investing in a track and how are we investing in conditions that are not harming and making it harmful for the animals and harmful for the riders,” Moore said.
Moore and other politicians spent most of the afternoon in a 200-person tent paid for by the state, where trays of hors d’oeuvres were shuffled in and out by wait staff as elected officials, government employees and business people mingled.
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Next door, a tent was marked as a fundraiser for the Democratic Governors Association, a national group of which Moore is on the leadership team. Attendees at that tent included a smattering of other governors — Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Laura Kelly of Kansas.
Other Democratic politicians making their way between the tents or elsewhere on the grounds were U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and former Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
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At least one of Democratic President Joe Biden’s cabinet members, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, also was scheduled to attend, along with a host of other state and local officials.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a fixture of Baltimore and state politics who’s attended the Preakness for decades, called it a “major magnet for our region” and said state leaders need to get it right when figuring out the next steps. He said plans to make Pimlico a larger venue, instead of just a track, “is probably the best way forward.”
Less than a month after announcing he’ll retire after his term expires in January 2025, Cardin, 79, said there’s always some “retail politics” happening at the Preakness, but it’s more about putting a national spotlight on the area.
Cardin also was excited, he said in the afternoon, because a bet he strategically placed on a horse named Bipartisanship had just placed third, as he specified. Moore also said he bet on Bipartisanship, while Democratic State Comptroller Brooke Lierman of Baltimore said she’d placed a dollar bet on Princess at the recommendation of her daughter.
“It’s a good sign,” Cardin said. “He was a 16-1 odds, which is the same thing in Washington, about 16-1 odds.”