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Maryland lawmakers have introduced legislation to authorize up to $375 million in debt to rebuild the state’s two largest racetracks and keep the storied Preakness horse race in Baltimore.
Maryland lawmakers have introduced legislation to authorize up to $375 million in debt to rebuild the state’s two largest racetracks and keep the storied Preakness horse race in Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland lawmakers introduced legislation Monday that would authorize up to $375 million in debt to rebuild the state’s two largest racetracks and keep the storied Preakness Stakes horse race in Baltimore.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee, would provide at least $180 million for work at or near the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and $155 million at Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.

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The legislation is expected to be one of the most high-profile bills of the General Assembly’s 90-day session. A House of Delegates version of the bill, sponsored by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, is likely to be introduced later this week.

“The goal here is to save the Preakness,” said Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat. “It’s to help surrounding neighborhoods. It’s to make Laurel a viable racing venue for the long term. It’s to do so in a fiscally responsible way where we use no funds that would have ever been programmed for education.”

The legislation has been in the works for months, ever since the city of Baltimore and The Stronach Group, which controls racing in Maryland, reached a deal last fall to end a fractious dispute that had the company threatening to move the race to Laurel and the city suing to seize Pimlico and take control of the Preakness.

Under the deal, The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, pledged to donate the track’s land in Northwest Baltimore to the city for development. Pimlico’s antiquated grandstand and clubhouse would be demolished and a new clubhouse would be built in its place. The track would be rotated 30 degrees to create nine parcels of land that could be sold for private development.

In a statement Monday, Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young called the legislation “historic.”

“Today’s bill introduction is a critical step forward for Baltimore as it preserves the great tradition of Preakness at Pimlico and signals the commitment of significant investment in the Park Heights community," Young said.

The parties envision the bond money going not only for the Pimlico track and community redevelopment, but also for The Stronach Group’s track at Laurel Park. Laurel would receive a new clubhouse and training facilities, along with new stables and new housing for backstretch workers. The thoroughbred industry’s Maryland training and stable operations would be consolidated there.

The legislation introduced Monday makes minor tweaks to the deal, but keeps its framework largely intact.

One change removes a future source of funding for repaying the bonds to address concerns about the original plan, which would have taken money intended for the state’s Education Trust Fund. The original plan would have switched the use of casino funds dedicated to horse racing in the state to pay the bonds for the tracks. Under the legislation, the state now would be required to contribute $17 million a year from the lottery. The casino money set aside for horse racing would sunset and those funds would go to education.

The bill also calls for $2.4 million to go annually to Park Heights Renaissance for work improving the community around the Pimlico track.

“Will there be some people who don’t think it’s the best? I’m sure," Guzzone said of the bill. "We’ll deal with those issues as they come along. This is the beginning. This is real now. We have a bill now. Now it’s time to listen to everybody once again and see where it all comes out.”

The bill notes bonds and projects would need to be approved by the state Board of Public Works.

State Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the Pimlico area, said she wants to ensure the deal benefits the community there.

“What is most important to our constituents is not only that we retain the Preakness at Pimlico, but that we ensure that the Pimlico site becomes a 24/7, 365-day-a-year benefit to Park Heights and surrounding communities,” Carter said.

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Park Heights community leader George Mitchell said the bill's introduction is the culmination of months of hard work and consideration.

"We’ve come a long way since Day 1," he said. "First it was the Preakness moving to Laurel, and people said there's no sense in trying to fight it.

“We have come a long, long, long way and thank God we have.”

The legislation also calls for the creation of an Equine Health, Safety and Welfare Advisory Committee under the Maryland Racing Commission to study the welfare of horses engaged in racing and training in Maryland.

And it lays out a plan for what would happen to the defunct Bowie Training Center, which also is owned by Stronach. Part of that facility’s land would be turned over to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for recreational activities, such as hiking and wildlife viewing, and to the city of Bowie and Bowie State University for activities such as baseball and football.

Douglas J.J. Peters of Prince George’s County, a Democrat who represents Bowie, said the plan has community support.

“Everybody wins. It’s a compromise,” he said.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was “confident” the bill would pass this year.

“We will find a way to get it done,” Ferguson said. “It’s most important to get it done right.”

This fall, Baltimore city and state legislative leaders hailed the deal as one that would keep the 144-year-old race, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, at its longtime home. If approved by the legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, construction is expected to be completed in three to four years.

The Preakness would continue to be run at Pimlico even during construction, under the deal. The Stronach Group would sign a lease for a minimum of 30 years to use the property for two months each year to prepare for and run the Preakness.

Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group, said the plan provides a “long-term future of the thoroughbred racing industry and the revitalization of the Park Heights community.”

In addition to the support of Young, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman Jr. also back the plan. The county executives are also Democrats.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Harford County Republican who is minority leader in the Senate, said he supports the plan, but wants to see the Maryland Stadium Authority, not Baltimore City, take control of the Pimlico race track.

“Maryland Stadium Authority has an incredible track record of taking these venues, turning them profitable, making them work,” Jennings said.

Hogan has said he’s waiting to review the legislation before deciding whether to support it.

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On Monday, before the bill was released, he said he wouldn’t support any plan that diverted education money to horse racing. But he said he was committed to seeing the Preakness stay in the city.

“I’ve always said I’d like to see the Preakness stay here in Baltimore," Hogan said. "It has such a history and tradition here. I think it’s important to the city.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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