The Maryland Jockey Club is asking racing regulators to approve $4.4 million in state subsidies entirely for renovations that the company made to its Laurel Park racetrack, even though crumbling conditions at Pimlico Race Course forced the closure of nearly 7,000 unstable seats for the Preakness Stakes.
The request adds to a fierce debate that’s raged all year between Jockey Club executives, who want to move the Preakness to Laurel Park, and city fficials who say the storied Triple Crown race must remain in Baltimore. Lawmakers have accused the company of neglecting Pimlico to advance its plans to consolidate racing in Laurel.
The Maryland Racing Commission is scheduled next week to consider the Jockey Club’s request to be reimbursed for half of the $8.7 million it spent last fall on Laurel Park improvements. It includes $1.4 million for an expenditure labeled “sports book” and $705,638 for a cost described as “E-Gaming,” according to a copy of the request obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
Those expenditures, in particular, prompted some state lawmakers to demand that the racing commission improve scrutiny of requests for reimbursement from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account. The account, funded by revenues from slots gambling at casinos in Maryland, provides matching grants for eligible capital improvements.
A Baltimore Sun investigation in March found that over the past five years, the Jockey Club spent roughly 87% of $45 million from the account on Laurel. State law does not dictate how much of the money the Jockey Club must spend at each of the two tracks.
The disparity shocked many city and state officials who have seen Pimlico’s racing schedule reduced to 12 days compared with 156 at Laurel Park last year.
“There clearly should be appropriate oversight by the racing commission of this money,” Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the Pimlico area, said Tuesday. “This shouldn’t just be ‘Bring your ticket to the window and cash it like you have the winning ticket at the last race’ because these are public dollars.”
Racing Commission Chairman Michael Algeo did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.
In a statement, the Maryland Jockey Club said it would request about $1.5 million in reimbursement from the state “at a future Maryland Racing Commission” for $3 million it spent at Pimlico this year on “infield seats, surveillance and security upgrades, heavy equipment, HVAC and flooring.”
The current reimbursement request angered Baltimore lawmakers, who see it as part of a strategy by the Jockey Club and its Canadian parent company, The Stronach Group, to move the Preakness to Laurel Park because conditions are so dismal at Pimlico. In addition to the sight of 6,670 closed-off seats, a national television audience watched May 18 as out-of-order bathrooms led to long lines for patrons attending the 144th running of the Preakness.
The company had announced the closure of the seating in the Old Grandstand on April 13, saying an engineering report found the 125-year-old section could no longer bear the weight of fans.
Rosenberg questioned why The Stronach Group spent $8.7 million at Laurel Park, especially on “sports book” expenses in a state where sports betting is illegal.
Company officials have previously said that Laurel Park has devoted new space for watching sports on large, wall-mounted screens in hopes that it could one day become a sports betting parlor.
The sports book area at Laurel “has become increasingly popular since it opened for guests to watch multiple sporting events and other functions,” the Jockey Club said in its statement Tuesday. “The same holds true for Laurel Park’s e-gaming venue, which is used for e-sports tournaments and other events which are intended to draw more daily visitors to our racing venue.”
Rosenberg said the commission needs to question why the current request is entirely for Laurel and specifically needs to ask Jockey Club officials, “What are you doing at Pimlico in terms of the toilet facilities?”
Michael Harrison, policy director for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, under which the racing commission operates, confirmed the renovations in the request the commission will review next week were made at Laurel Park.
Del. Nick Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat, said asking for reimbursement from the state now only for Laurel Park renovations is not a surprise given the company’s desire to move the Preakness — despite a state law that requires the race to be run in Baltimore except in the case of an emergency or disaster.
The city recently dropped a lawsuit against The Stronach Group in which its lawyers argued that the disparity in renovation spending could deliberately create the “’emergency or disaster’ to justify” moving the race to Laurel Park.
“It’s destruction by neglect,” Mosby said.
A spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young of Baltimore declined to comment as he plans to reopen negotiations with Stronach officials in the wake of the lawsuit.
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Mosby has raised the issue of what he called “deplorable” living conditions for backstretch workers at Laurel Park and Pimlico.
“They haven’t communicated explicitly a formal plan for housing at Laurel, yet they’re asking for additional RFRA funds for e-gaming?” he said.
The company’s request does include nearly $52,000 for “dorm renovations.” Other big-ticket items include $608,746 for the Tycoons restaurant, $705,638 for e-gaming and $895,879 for “sports bar.”
Mosby called on the racing commission not to give “carte blanche” to the Jockey Club.
Rosenberg said the commission also needs to ask the company how it plans to address the safety of Pimlico’s grandstand, since city officials and the commission agreed to keep the Jockey Club’s engineering report private.
“The public has a right to know what their plans for the grandstand are for next year,” he said.
Jockey Club officials have said the Preakness will be held at Pimlico at least through next year.