Stronach Group calls on city of Baltimore to 'immediately' withdraw lawsuit to seize Pimlico, Preakness Stakes

The owner of Pimlico Race Course sent a letter Wednesday to the city of Baltimore’s top lawyer, asking him to withdraw an attempt to seize ownership of the track and the Preakness Stakes on the grounds that under Maryland law, only the state has the authority to seek such action.

Mayor Catherine Pugh sued The Stronach Group’s Maryland affiliates earlier this month to try to block them from moving the Preakness to Laurel Park and from using state bonds to fund improvements at the Anne Arundel County track. The mayor’s lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court also asked the court to grant ownership of Pimlico and Preakness to the city through condemnation.

Lawyers for Stronach’s Maryland Jockey Club, Alan Rifkin and Arnold Weiner, responded with the letter to City Solicitor Andre Davis. They wrote that the city’s lawsuit is “devoid” of a legal basis because the state “has exclusive authority over all aspects of racing, including as to eminent domain actions.”

“We respectfully demand that the city action be immediately withdrawn,” the attorneys wrote. “The failure to do so may result in our clients seeking all available sanctions, including costs, expenses, attorneys’ fees, punitive damages and any other relief a court may grant.”

Davis could not immediately be reached for comment.

City officials and track owners have been sparring over the lucrative and historic Preakness Stakes for the past month as the General Assembly debates separate measures about the future of Pimlico and Laurel Park. The 2019 legislative session ends April 8.

The letter to Davis came a day after Baltimore Del. Nick Mosby called on two Laurel-area lawmakers to “immediately withdraw” their bills on state funding for racetrack repairs until concerns about housing conditions for track workers at Laurel Park are addressed.

The bills supported by Anne Arundel County lawmakers would alter state subsidies in a way that would generate $80 million worth of bonds to support The Stronach Group’s vision to build a “super track” at Laurel Park and the nearby Bowie Training Center. The Laurel Park track would eventually host the Preakness.

Meanwhile, Baltimore-area lawmakers back a bill that calls for the creation of a work group to study a plan to raze Pimlico, rebuild the site for $424 million and retain Preakness in Baltimore.

A Maryland law passed in 1987 requires that the Preakness — the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown — can be moved from Pimlico “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.” Stronach Group officials previously pledged to keep the Preakness at Pimlico through 2020. The 2019 race is planned for May 18.

Pugh’s lawsuit claimed The Stronach Group is “openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack, despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating.”

The city’s lawsuit states that if a judge grants ownership of the track to Baltimore that the “properties will be used to continue their historic role in the cultural traditions of Baltimore city, to foster employment and economic development in Baltimore, and in particular in the Park Heights Urban Renewal jurisdiction, as well as to protect the health and safety of the people attending the Preakness and other Pimlico events, as well as the employees and horses working there.”

The lawsuit, the Stronach lawyers wrote to Davis, “is a transparent ploy to gain some sort of negotiating leverage over the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club and the Preakness Stakes.”

Rifkin said Maryland law has been clear for nearly a century on the issue of state authority over racing. Back in the 1920s, every county had separate racing circuits and rules to govern the contests — and the wagering. Then, the state stepped in and consolidated the industry.

If the city does not withdraw the lawsuit, the attorneys will ask the court to dismiss the action.

“The city does not have the authority to condemn racing facilities,” Rifkin said. “That’s very clearly set out in state law.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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