Sal Sinatra, GM of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, says he'll have a clear picture by year's end about the future of the Preakness at Pimlico. (Jon Meoli/Baltimore Sun)
As city officials pledged a fight to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, others pointed out Monday that state law prohibits the horse race from being moved to another track in Maryland.
Over the weekend, Sal Sinatra, vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, floated the idea of moving the Preakness from Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course to Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.
But in an interview Monday, Sinatra said he's "fairly confident" he can make enough of a profit at Laurel to keep Pimlico open for at least a spring racing season that would continue to include the Preakness.
"I know it would be a hardship on Baltimore if the Preakness and Pimlico were to go away," Sinatra said. "We are one of the few lifelines in that area now."
He said he had no timetable for making a decision, and said he was not aware of a state law restricting a move.
Under a Maryland law passed in 1987, the Preakness can be moved to another track in the state "only as a result of a disaster or emergency." That law, which is part of the state's regulations on businesses, would need to be changed by the Maryland General Assembly to move the high-profile race, according to the state attorney general's office and others.
The language was part of a bill that legalized — among other things — Sunday racing at Pimlico, where the Preakness recently held its 140th running.
During a hearing on the legislation at the time, a state senator asked one of the track's then-owners whether he was OK with the provision preventing a transfer of the Preakness elsewhere in the state. The owner said it would be OK if the amendment allowed for an exception for an unforeseen event, such as a fire, according to Sandy Brantley, an assistant attorney general who advises state lawmakers.
Given the law, the path for moving the Preakness from Baltimore to Laurel Park would have to go through Annapolis, officials said.
"In order to transfer it permanently, you'd have to get some legislative relief," said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, which regulates the state's racing industry.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents the Pimlico area, said it's "imperative" that the Preakness stays in Baltimore. She hopes to meet soon with Jockey Club officials to discuss the race's future.
"Baltimore City has been good to the Preakness and the Preakness has been good to Baltimore City. … I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure it stays that way," Spector said.
Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said it would be "inconceivable" to think of holding the Preakness anywhere but in Baltimore.
"The mayor will be reaching out to the owners of Pimlico and meeting with a number of elected officials to discuss the importance of the Preakness to the city," Libit said. "The mayor will continue to work with Pimlico's owners, the business community and elected officials to ensure that this tradition never leaves Baltimore."
Sinatra said keeping the Preakness at Pimlico depends on turning around the finances of the Jockey Club, which is owned by parent company the Stronach Group.
"In recent times, at least the last half-dozen years, we've been losing $3 million, $5 million, $6 million per year. I came on board to make it solvent again," Sinatra said.
The Stronach Group has turned around other tracks and hopes to do the same in Maryland, he said. "The question is: Where does the bulk of the investment go? Is it Laurel, or is it Pimlico?" Sinatra said.
So far, Laurel is in the lead. Laurel already has far more racing days, has a larger property and its main grandstand building is in better shape and newer than Pimlico's. Laurel also has absorbed horse-training operations that used to be at the Bowie Training Center.
Sinatra said his goal is to "build out" Laurel and have the Jockey Club break even or better "so we can keep both places."
Sinatra would like to add other entertainment options to Laurel to lure people to the track for racing and nonracing events.
"You have to use your facility for more than horses running around in circles," he said.
Sinatra said Saturday that he hoped to begin renovations at one of the tracks by June or July.
If the Jockey Club does try to move the Preakness, Sinatra said he isn't too worried about the issue becoming a political battle.
"We're open with the politicians. This isn't something we're doing in the middle of the night. … This will be discussed by all parties — the city, the state, everyone. We're here in Maryland to stay. We're not here to burn any bridges," Sinatra said.
Anne Arundel County would welcome the crowds and financial boon of holding the Preakness at Laurel Park but won't be lobbying for a move, said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Schuh.
"This is something that has been talked about for so many years. Obviously, we'd welcome it, but we want to hear more about it," McEvoy said. "We are taking the wait-and-see approach."