Just months ago, the future of the Preakness in Baltimore looked bleak.
The city’s then-mayor had been sending insulting letters to the Stronachs, the Canadian family that owns Pimlico Race Course. The city and the track owner were embroiled in a lawsuit featuring yet more insults and allegations. Stronach executives were talking openly of moving the Preakness to their other Maryland racetrack, promoting the idea of building a “Super Track” in Laurel that could host the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Then in May, on Preakness Day, new Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young stepped in.
An accidental leader who had taken over as mayor just days earlier when Catherine Pugh resigned amid scandal, Young found himself an invited guest of Stronach Group president Belinda Stronach in the company’s tent at Pimlico. He pulled her aside.
Lawyers and aides for both nervously wrung their hands as the two parties in a high-profile lawsuit spoke one on one, out of earshot. But sitting there, on two small chairs surrounded by seersucker-clad gamblers and partiers, the two leaders agreed to a rapprochement.
They set in motion a chain of events that, less than five months later, would produce a deal to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, in their words, “forever.”
“It was clearly a turning point,” says Alan M. Rifkin, a lawyer who represents Stronach. “It was a seminal moment. As lawyers, we often are concerned when litigants talk to each other, but that was actually the best thing that could have possibly happened. Everybody really credits the mayor and Belinda for being open-minded enough to throw down swords and try to find solutions.”
Young, who had been mayor for just 16 days, recalls walking into the Stronach tent at the Northwest Baltimore racetrack looking for a fresh start.
“I approached her and asked her, ‘What can we do to reset?’ ” the Democrat said Friday.
Stronach, herself a former prominent Canadian politician, told the mayor she was open to negotiations if the city backed off its legal offensive. Young eventually agreed to do just that.
“I told the city solicitor we’re going to reset and get the thing done,” Young said.
A few weeks later, the city withdrew its lawsuit, and the parties appointed a three-person negotiating team ― Rifkin representing the Stronachs, former Baltimore Development Corp. CEO William H. Cole IV representing the city of Baltimore, and Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association CEO Alan Foreman representing Maryland’s horse owners and trainers.
They had instructions to try to reach a deal within 120 days.
A succession of Baltimore mayors had been trying for years to figure out a way to save the Preakness and renovate Pimlico, without success. But it was clear early on, participants say, that this time would be different.
A major turning point came when Stronach authorized Rifkin to agree to donate Pimlico and all its land to the city at no cost.
Another breakthrough came when the parties reached agreement that the city would need to contribute only $3.5 million a year it gets in slot machine revenue to a major rebuild of the 149-year-old track.
Rifkin described the challenge this way: “We were tasked by the mayor to try to resolve this vexing question,” he said, adding that he personally thought it might prove “impossible” to reach agreement. “It’s our last best chance. Can we find a way?”
Under the terms of the $375 million deal, roughly $200 million would be used to rebuild Pimlico. Its antiquated grandstand and clubhouse would be demolished. A new clubhouse would be built and the track rotated to create parcels of land that the city could sell for private development.
Training and stable operations would move south to Laurel Park, which would undergo a roughly $175 million renovation.
There are still several key elements left unresolved to make the vision a reality.
While the deal doesn’t call for any large infusion of state taxpayer money, the Maryland Stadium Authority would need to authorize 30-year bonds to finance the work at Pimlico and Laurel, leveraging small but already existing state funding streams for horse racing. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose support would be key to securing the stadium authority’s participation, has so far declined to say whether he endorses the idea.
The deal would also need General Assembly legislation to allow the $3.5 million a year in slots money to go to Baltimore for about two decades longer than current law permits.
The leaders of the legislature seemed optimistic Friday they could make that happen.
In a joint statement, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, both Democrats, called the agreement a “win-win for the racing industry and the communities of Baltimore that ensures the Preakness will remain in Baltimore City and that we have sustainable racing at Laurel Park year round in Maryland.”
It was in part the Baltimore delegation in the legislature that helped set the stage for the effort to forge a deal to keep the Preakness at Pimlico. In the final days of the General Assembly session in April, the delegates voted 16-0 to effectively kill a proposal for amended legislation that some believe would have opened the door to the race moving to Laurel. That bill’s failure helped force Stronach to the negotiating table, lawmakers say.
Belinda Stronach declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this article, saying Rifkin would speak for her.
Sen. Jill P. Carter and Dels. Dalya Attar, Tony Bridges and Sandy Rosenberg, all Democrats who represent the Pimlico area, celebrated the deal in a statement Friday.
“In addition to preserving the Preakness in Baltimore, this redevelopment will provide countless opportunities for the community including a state of the art community center for use year-round," the lawmakers said. "We are also committed to including a new Enoch Pratt library branch. It has been a long hard fight, and we are extremely grateful to have achieved this result for the benefit of our community.”
Del. Nick J. Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat who had fought against the Preakness leaving the city, called the deal a “huge win for Baltimore.”
“Many folks would have told you only a few months ago that the Preakness was eventually going to move from Pimlico,” Mosby said Saturday. “If that amendment had gone through, the Preakness would be going to Laurel.”
Mosby praised Young for agreeing to drop the city’s lawsuit against Stronach.
“Many people questioned him when he pulled back on the lawsuit. It was a risk. But it allowed him, being the new mayor, to sit at the table,” Mosby said.
The negotiating team called the acrimony during the legislative session a ”firestorm" that ultimately proved necessary.
“We would not be here today without the last session and the ugliness,” Cole said. “It was very unpleasant for everybody. Belinda reached out to the mayor and figured out a way to get us in the room.”
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said Young will get credit for the deal, if approved by state lawmakers, which he says has “symbolic importance” for the direction of the city. Losing the storied Preakness could have proved a major blow to civic pride.
But Crenson said he doesn’t believe the deal will have a significant impact on the mayor’s race. Young has yet to say whether he is running for mayor in April’s Democratic primary.
“When the election comes around voters will be focused on other issues like crime and vacant houses,” Crenson said of the Preakness deal. “It’s a plus for the mayor, but it’s a small one.”
Rebecca Murphy, a political consultant who teaches communications at Loyola University Maryland, said Young showed wisdom by retaining Cole as his chief negotiator. In 2010, Young and Cole had been rivals to become City Council president, but the men had long since put their differences aside.
“That says a lot about both of them,” Murphy said. “Bill is really smart and really committed to the city," she said. As former head of the BDC, Cole "had already spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure this out. It is to Jack’s credit that he didn’t make a political calculus, but did what was best for the process.”
On Friday, Young and Stronach sent a letter to Hogan, Miller and Jones announcing the deal. Among those signing it was County Executive Steuart Pittman of Anne Arundel County, where the Laurel track is located.
Pittman said Saturday that he had been skeptical a deal could ever be worked out between the city and Stronach officials.
He was Young’s guest at Preakness this year. After lunch, they went to the Stronach tent together.
“At that point, I did not believe The Stronach Group would seriously change course and negotiate in good faith to keep the Preakness at Pimlico,” said Pittman, a Democrat. “I thought they’d made up their minds and they wouldn’t change their mind."
Pittman credits Young for changing the city’s approach from litigation to conversation.
“Jack has an open mind. He will talk to anybody and listen respectfully," Pittman said. “I think Jack’s attitude had a lot to do with it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.