Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he wants to keep the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and is willing to talk about investing state money to do so.
The governor's office issued a statement after the owner of Pimlico Race Course said this week that the 147-year-old track likely would have to be rebuilt — at a cost of $300 million to $500 million — to keep the race there rather than move it to Laurel.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the racing division of The Stronach Group, said a "huge" commitment of public money would be necessary.
"Governor Hogan has made it clear he wants to see the Preakness stay in Baltimore, where it has attracted visitors from around the country for over 140 years," said Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said when asked to comment on Ritvo's remarks. "The governor is committed to working with all involved parties to work out a solution that preserves this tradition while ensuring the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch also signaled he's open to a state role. The Anne Arundel County Democrat characterized the Pimlico issue as a "negotiation." He said Stronach "picked an appropriate time to start their request and they're waiting for a response next year from the city and the state."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat who would be a key player in any solution, could not be reached to comment.
Regardless of the top leaders' willingness to consider a state investment, lawmakers warned that it would be difficult to win General Assembly approval of a sizable investment in a track that survives on the strength of one big day each year. Whether Democrats or Republicans, legislators are wary of asking taxpayers to write an oversized check to keep the Preakness in Baltimore — especially when some see Stronach's Laurel Park as a viable alternative.
"Having Laurel available complicates the picture," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who chairs the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee.
Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties, isn't ruling out what he calls a "three-way partnership" of the state, the city and the company to rebuild Pimlico. But he said it's "hard to imagine" the state spending hundreds of millions to do that as long as the more modern track at Laurel is available.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents the city of Laurel but not the racetrack, noted that Maryland has already channeled millions of dollars in casino gambling revenue to support horse racing.
"I would be skeptical that taxpayers would welcome dedicating even more money to the racing industry," he said.
Del. Chris West represents the horse country of northern Baltimore County and reveres the tradition associated with the Preakness being run each May at Pimlico. The thought of it moving dismays him.
"It's part of Maryland's history we simply cannot forfeit," he said.
But West is a fiscally conservative Republican, and when faced with the prospect of spending hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to help Pimlico's owner renovate or replace the facility, he balks.
"I'd love to save Old Hilltop. It would be terrific, but you've got to look at how much it's going to cost," he said. West said he's open to negotiating with the Stronach Group and local governments, but he's not prepared to give the company whatever it wants.
"If Laurel wasn't there or Laurel was decrepit and we might lose horse racing in Maryland completely, I might be in favor of pulling out the checkbook," West said.
Baltimore political leaders say they are committed to keeping the state's largest sporting event at Pimlico. But the city could face a difficult political challenge if it needs to fight in Annapolis for Pimlico funding.
The city has lost population – and political sway – in recent years relative to Montgomery County and Prince George's County, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
"This is a test of the working relationship between Mayor Catherine Pugh and Governor Hogan," Kromer said. "It's been demonstrated that the mayor and governor have an ability to work together. Her instinct is to try to build bridges to bring things to Baltimore."
The scope of a Pimlico rebuild could be problematic for the city.
"It's not just about the politics — it's also about the money. You can't talk about one without the other," Kromer said. "It becomes a difficult narrative for Baltimore because we just went through a state legislative cycle where there was a huge funding gap for education. It's the optics."
Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore's House delegation in Annapolis, said the state has already given Pimlico's owners many concessions to keep the Preakness at the track in the form of investments and reduced taxes.
"They were not fiscally responsible partners in that they didn't put up their fair share," he said.
Anderson said he'd be hesitant to approach legislators from other parts of the state asking for a big expenditure at Pimlico.
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"I would have a hard time doing that simply because we already go to colleagues for many other issues that are far more critical for life in Baltimore — things like public safety and education," he said. The city delegation, Anderson said, has four or five items on its priority list that rank higher than Pimlico, including jump-starting the stalled $1.5 billion redevelopment of State Center.
"I really hope the Preakness stays, but we have to devote our efforts for those things that make people stay in Baltimore," he said.
Del. Bilal Ali is one of the legislature's most vocal proponents of the State Center development, which has been stalled by litigation after Hogan pulled the plug on an agreement with the developer. But Ali, a Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, said the track shouldn't be counted out as a Baltimore priority. He said he's not ready to concede the Preakness to another track.
"Certainly I would have a strong objection. I'm for Baltimore City, not Laurel," he said. "Why would I want to take the second jewel of the Tripe Crown to Laurel?"