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Plan to renovate horse racing tracks clears Maryland Senate, awaits House approval

This rendering shows what an event center and clubhouse could look like under a proposed Pimlico Race Course redevelopment. Legislation to allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue bonds to finance renovations at Pimlico and Laurel Park is advancing in the Maryland General Assembly.
This rendering shows what an event center and clubhouse could look like under a proposed Pimlico Race Course redevelopment. Legislation to allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue bonds to finance renovations at Pimlico and Laurel Park is advancing in the Maryland General Assembly.(Populous / HANDOUT)

A $389 million plan to renovate the Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course tracks and keep the Preakness Stakes race in Baltimore sailed through the Maryland Senate on Friday.

The measure now is being considered by the House of Delegates, where the tracks’ owners are optimistic about their chances for approval.

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“We’re confident that we’re in as good hands in the House as we are in the Senate. We’ve heard favorable things and we’re hopeful,” said Alan Rifkin, general counsel for the Maryland Jockey Club, a subsidiary of the Stronach Group that owns the tracks.

The fate of the two aging thoroughbred horse racing tracks has been unclear for years. As recently as a year ago, Stronach said it intended to turn Laurel Park into a “super track” for year-round racing, leaving many in Baltimore concerned that it would come at the expense of Pimlico Race Course.

Efforts to strike a deal that would have required Stronach to invest in Pimlico and keep the Preakness Stakes race there fizzled in the waning days of last year’s General Assembly session.

Now, with about one month left in the current General Assembly session, a new plan that keeps both tracks in business has met with almost no resistance.

“What a difference a year makes,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said as the bill passed his chamber on a 44-1 vote.

Representatives from the Stronach Group, the Baltimore City government and the racing industry met for months last year and hatched a new plan that they presented to lawmakers.

They envision a $389 million overhaul of the Laurel and Pimlico tracks.

Laurel would be the home of year-round racing and training, with dirt, grass and synthetic tracks; a new grandstand; new barns; and new housing for workers. A ground lease arrangement would be worked out with Anne Arundel County for at least 30 years.

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Pimlico would be turned over to the city or a city-approved entity, and that entity could sell off several parcels around the track for private development. The track would become a multi-use facility that would be used for most of the year for sports tournaments, festivals and other events.

Each spring, the Maryland Jockey Club would lease Pimlico to run a horse racing meet including the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown. The jockey club would pay to build temporary stands and tents for the Preakness.

The legislation would allow up to $375 million worth of bonds to be issued for the projects, though racing officials believe they may need to use only about $348 million in bonds.

Those bonds would be paid back over 30 years using $17 million per year from the Maryland Lottery.

The lottery would be replenished from three sources:

  • $5 million annually in money from slot machines that otherwise would be used to fatten purses for winning horses.
  • $3.5 million annually in slots money that otherwise goes to community aid in Baltimore.
  • $8.5 million annually from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, which is slots money that pays for construction projects at tracks.

The project also would use about $24 million that will be built up and sitting in the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account and $17 million in a one-time payout from the Maryland lottery.

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The easy passage through the Senate is “a testament to a lot of hard work,” Rifkin said.

Asked if he expected smooth passage, Rifkin said: “I don’t think we really had any expectations one way or another. From the negotiators’ point of view, we were trying to present a plan we thought was feasible and effective and practical, and let the plan speak for itself.”

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he was thrilled to see the plan advancing in the legislature.

“I am so happy about that. It shows the state legislators are taking his seriously,” Young, a Democrat, said Friday afternoon. “This is going to be a big win for Baltimore.”

The bill is now under consideration by the House of Delegates. The House Ways and Means Committee approved a version of the bill on Friday night.

If the plan passes the General Assembly, it would go to Gov. Larry Hogan, who could veto the bill, sign it or allow it to become law without his signature. Hogan has not offered a position on the bill but has expressed interest in keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

Young said he talked with the Republican governor about the plan “awhile back.”

“I’m hoping the governor embraces it as well,” Young said.

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