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Landmark plan to preserve Preakness Stakes in Baltimore will become law without governor’s signature

A $389 million deal to rebuild the historic — but dilapidated — Pimlico Race Course and keep the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore will become law without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature.

The plan had sailed through the state House and Senate earlier this year. But it was not certain until Thursday whether it would survive or be vetoed by Hogan, who expressed reservations about approving new spending because of the economic turmoil created by the COVID-19 health crisis

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Preliminary architectural design and civil engineering will begin immediately.

“We are confident that the near shovel-ready capital works projects included in the ‘Racing and Community Redevelopment Act’ will be a critical part of Maryland’s financial recovery, jobs creation and community and economic development,” said Alan Rifkin, counsel for the Maryland Jockey Club and Preakness Stakes.

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The legislation addressed “vexing issues that had long challenged the industry,” Rifkin said, allowing “for the bright future and optimism of the Preakness at Pimlico for generations to come” as well as year-round racing at Laurel Park, about 30 miles away.

Under the plan, the Preakness — Maryland’s largest and splashiest sporting event — will remain at Pimlico even during construction.

The jockey club, which oversees the track, has yet to announce concrete plans for a postponed running of this year’s Preakness. The race and its associated events could not be held as usual this month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last October, the city of Baltimore and the owners of the nearly 150-year-old race Pimlico track came up with a way to keep the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown in the city.

The agreement was the political equivalent of a longshot. During the 2019 General Assembly session, The Stronach Group — owner of Pimlico and the Laurel — had unsuccessfully sought bond funding to begin creating a so-called “supertrack” at Laurel, a project that could have sidelined Pimlico.

The October deal instead preserved both tracks — a victory for Baltimore — but required General Assembly approval. Laurel is also to receive a new clubhouse and and many other upgrades.

The plan’s advocates, including Baltimore representatives, Stronach and the state’s thoroughbred industry, argued that the plan would not only preserve the Preakness at its longtime home, but would do so by tapping into existing funds for racing rather than new expenditures.

Agreements must still be entered among the Maryland Stadium Authority and the parties. The authority will oversee the project.

The future of Pimlico had long been a subject of debate and government studies.

The “Old Hilltop” track is steeped in history. Pimlico is where Man o’ War romped to victory in the 1920 Preakness and the first tote board was introduced in 1933. Seabiscuit upset War Admiral there in a 1938 match race, and Secretariat overwhelmed the Preakness field in 1973.

The Pimlico and Laurel rebuilding projects are to be funded by bonds to be paid back over 30 years by the Maryland Lottery. The anticipated timeline for all the Pimlico and Laurel work is 4 to 4 1/2 years.

The lottery would be replenished from casino slot machine revenues already dedicated to Maryland’s racing industry.

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The largest of those funds is the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, which pays for construction projects at tracks. Funds will also be tapped that fatten purses for winning horses and provide money for community impact grants.

After design and engineering work, demolition is to begin at Laurel. The stable area will be demolished and the horses moved temporarily to Pimlico.

Under the plan, Pimlico is to receive a new clubhouse, and the track is to be rotated 30 degrees to the northeast to create nine parcels of land — donated by Stronach to the city — that could be sold for private development.

Laurel will remain the primary site for year-round thoroughbred racing in Maryland with an extensive reworking.

In addition to a new clubhouse, The Stronach Group plans to add a Tapeta-brand synthetic track alongside the existing dirt and turf track at Laurel, as well as new stable areas and an equine diagnostic center.

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