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Stronach tells Bowie Council that Laurel Park construction could begin this October

Jockey Katie Davis (right) winds down No Refunds after winning the second race of the day at Laurel Park Friday afternoon.
Jockey Katie Davis (right) winds down No Refunds after winning the second race of the day at Laurel Park Friday afternoon. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Construction of a super track in Laurel could begin this October, with work on a “world-class” Bowie Training Center following, representatives for The Stronach Group told the Bowie City Council Monday evening.

Attorney Michael Johansen said if the funding legislation they’re lobbying for in the General Assembly is successful, they could start construction inside the clubhouse at Laurel after the Maryland Million race on Oct. 19. They have not applied for permits yet, he emphasized, and would still need to go through that process.

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Stronach is readying Laurel Park as a possible new home for the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown which is held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. But first they would need the legislature’s approval to move the Preakness to Laurel Park. Under state law it can only be moved in case of emergency or disaster.

The company, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, wants to make $80 million in improvements to Laurel Park so it can be a year-round racing destination. It also wants to make $40 million in improvements to bring training back to the former Bowie Race Track, which closed as a track in 1985 and as a training center in 2015. Those desires are at conflict with a proposal to tear down and rebuild the Pimlico Race Course. The Maryland Stadium Authority said in a study that plans to rebuild Pimlico would cost $424 million.

Stronach said it would pay for half of the Bowie and Laurel projects, and want to use racetrack renewal funds that are set aside from casino profits to cover the other half. While Johansen said the renewal money comes in at about $8 million a year, the legislation they support would allow the Maryland Economic Development Corporation to access the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account and issue bonds for the projects.

Baltimore’s mayor and city council filed a lawsuit against Stronach on Tuesday, seeking to seize the Pimlico Race Course and Preakness and block the possible move of the race. Baltimore’s state senate delegation sent a letter to the Budget and Taxation Committee last Friday asking the group to either kill the funding bill, or make an amendment that would require a planned-unit development be presented to the Board of Public Works for the Pimlico site before any bonds for Laurel would be issued. On Tuesday, Baltimore County legislators announced that they are working on a letter to support their counterparts in the city.

Legislation is also being considered that would add the Bowie property to the list of tracks that can benefit from casino revenue. It was not included on the list when Maryland first approved casino gambling in 2008, and as such, is ineligible for renewal funds. The bill could still provide Bowie with racetrack renewal funding, even if the MEDCO bill fails.

While the ultimate fate of those properties remains undecided, awaiting the decisions of lawmakers in Annapolis, the representatives assured the Bowie City Council Monday night that they would be communicative and responsive to concerns from neighbors. After Monday’s meeting Bowie resident and neighbor to Bowie Race Track Melanie Bollinger shared concerns about tractor-trailers being stored on the site, which she called an eyesore; Sinatra said the arrangement with Ryder trucks is temporary.

Another neighbor, Audrey Cunningham from Saddlebrook, grew up next to the track and is looking forward to the return of horse training there.

The council and Stronach both mentioned Bowie’s historic connection to horse racing. The track there opened in 1914, and a horse and horseshoe are included on the town’s seal.

A concept design for the Bowie property shows the majority of barns remaining on the west side of Route 197, as well as a possible dormitory. Other buildings to support equine health with technology like walk-in pools could be added, they said — the plans are far from final. A synthetic track inside a dirt track at Bowie is another possibility, Sinatra said.

Synthetic tracks are kind to horses, he said, referencing recent horse breakdowns. The New York Times reported this month that 22 horses have died at the Stronach-owned Santa Anita Park in California since December, most recently a horse named Princess Lili B, who broke both legs and was euthanized. Stronach has inspected the track and said in a letter March 14 that in response to the deaths it was banning the use of race-day medication and asserting that riding crops should only be used as a corrective safety measure.

Bowie Mayor Fred Robinson said he was supportive of the legislation being considered in the General Assembly. He also told the representatives that they had set their own standard by pitching a “world-class” training center in Bowie. The city is going to hold them to it, he said.

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