As the Maryland General Assembly enters the homestretch of the 2019 legislative session, Baltimore-area lawmakers are making a run at defeating measures proposed by Anne Arundel County legislators that would bolster Laurel Park and leave Pimlico Race Course in its dust.
Baltimore Del. Nick Mosby called on Anne Arundel County officials Tuesday to immediately inspect what he has called “deplorable” living conditions at the dormitories that Laurel Park provides to its backstretch workers at the horse racing track.
The Baltimore Democrat displayed photographs at an Annapolis news conference that he says were provided to him by a “horse industry whistleblower” to reveal “slum-like” quarters at Laurel Park.
The living conditions, he said, should prompt Arundel lawmakers to withdraw bills that seek to change how the state subsidizes racetrack renovations — proposals that would help fund a so-called “super track” in Laurel that could steal the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, from Pimlico.
“Pictures of this housing reveal exposed wires, animal troughs used as sinks, widespread mold, no food preparation or refrigeration facilities, and 32 employees using one shower and two stalls that can only be reached by walking outside in the elements,” Mosby said. “The horses in the adjacent barns … live in better facilities.”
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, however, agreed with Mosby’s concerns and ordered the inspection of housing at Laurel Park.
“Everyone deserves safe and healthy housing — at the racetrack or anywhere else in Maryland,” Pittman said.
Officials with The Stronach Group, which owns the tracks, said the conditions in the photographs Mosby displayed show older dorm rooms that provide free housing to workers — not more modern, low-rent apartments in a newer building called Laurel Commons.
Dormitory-style quarters are common at racetracks across the nation, experts say.
But Tim Ritvo, a Stronach executive, said the company stands ready to install a new, 81,300-square-foot barn that has been delivered in pieces to Laurel Park. The Amish-built, three-story barn with a pending building permit features a second floor with 40 new dorm rooms for workers and a third floor with 75 units.
The $3.8 million building — financed by $1.9 million in state subsidies — could be installed either at Laurel or Bowie.
“We’re trying to determine what the final outcome is going to be,” Ritvo said. “What spurred this is politically motivated because of the talk about moving the Preakness.”
Despite Mosby’s rhetoric about horses living better than workers, Sen. Pam Beidle and Del. Mark Chang disregarded his demand the Anne Arundel Democrats withdraw bills supporting a new funding mechanism benefiting Laurel Park.
The General Assembly has been debating their bills and another measure supported by Baltimore-area lawmakers to establish a work group to begin studying how to implement a concept estimated to cost at least $424 million to rebuild Pimlico Race Course as the permanent home for the Preakness.
Other efforts to win approval for legislation favorable to Pimlico have included community marches and social media pleas. In addition, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh flied a lawsuit against Stronach earlier this month to block the company from moving the Preakness or from funding the super track at Laurel.
Mosby’s effort is the latest move in a campaign that intensified after The Baltimore Sun reported that Stronach had been spending far less of its state subsidies at Pimlico. Since 2011, 79 percent of the $112 million Stronach has spent from various sources have gone to Laurel.
“Imagine the human indignity of leaving a concrete cell to work with animals that are provided better living conditions,” Mosby wrote in a letter he sent to Beidle and Chang.
Beidle did agree that Laurel Park “can’t have unlivable conditions.” If the conditions are as grim as Mosby’s photos depict, she said, “that has to change.”
Mike Hopkins, the Maryland Racing Commission’s executive director, and an Anne Arundel County Health Department official said they have no complaints about living conditions at Laurel Park.
“Those types of quarters are at racetracks all over the nation,” Hopkins said.
Mike Gimbel, a drug addiction expert, said he and others have attempted in the past to deliver treatment programs to backstretch workers.
“Backstretch workers and their living conditions are like a third world country,” Gimbel said. “Very poor housing, medical care, dangerous health conditions and a lot of drugs, alcohol and gambling.”
But Stronach officials said the company’s plans would improve those conditions as it builds a year-round racing industry.
There are about 120 trainers who pay the nearly 200 “hotwalkers,” “groomers” and “exercise riders” to take care of the horses at Laurel Park, Ritvo said.
For the hotwalkers and groomers who live at the track — many of whom come from Mexico on work visas — Laurel Park offers two living options.
There are currently 72 dorm rooms spread across various older buildings. About two workers live in each — rent free. These are the older buildings pictured in the photographs that Mosby has distributed. Residents share a communal bathroom and shower as well as a kitchen. Many use bikes to get to restaurants or grocery stores nearby.
But there is also what’s called “Laurel Commons.” It is a 40-unit apartment building that charges $200 per month for workers who live alone and $150 per month if they pair up in a room. The money goes into a fund that pays all the utilities at the building, which was built with state and federal housing loans.
Laurel Commons cost about $2 million to build in 2000 and was primarily financed by a $1 million loan from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and a $300,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a property financed by the Department of Housing and Community Development, “it is subject to oversight and monitoring” as well as regular inspections, a spokesman said. Inspection records for the apartments could not be obtained Tuesday.
Ritvo said backstretch workers can make between $300 and $500 a week working from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. — and more if the horses they help train become winners. There is also free basic health services provided at the track.
He said the company wants the workers to eventually assimilate with the community and move out of the dorms. But many have lived there for years — even decades.
“These guys live and die to take care of the horses,” Ritvo said. “It’s a passion.”
The track provides a recreation room with pool tables, televisions and other activities, as well as food trucks to provide breakfast closer to the barns, saving them the walk to the kitchen.
Bobby Lillis has been executive director of the Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Foundation for 21 years and has worked in Maryland since 1976 at Pimlico, Laurel, Timonium and Bowie.
The foundation provides assistance to workers such as buying and delivering food to injured workers and helping them apply for Medicaid.
Lillis said he worked his way up from the backstretch jobs until he was a jockey, developing a lifelong horse racing career that helped him put two children through college.
“The racetrack is one of the few places in the United States where the American Dream is still alive and well,” Lillis said. “You can come to the racetrack and have absolutely nothing and better yourself from hotwalker to groomer to exercise rider to trainer.”
Lillis said many of the workers are “one step above homelessness” and that the dorms and apartments — while not luxurious — provide them an opportunity to live comfortably.
“No one is forced to live here,” Lillis said. “They live here because they want to.”