The question of Pimlico’s future was front and center as politicians mingled in the corporate tents and watched thoroughbreds sprint by Saturday during the Preakness Stakes celebration.
A plane circled overhead trailing a banner reading: “Stronach Keep Preakness in Baltimore,” paid for by a political communications firm, KO Public Affairs.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young sported a yellow “Keep Preakness in Baltimore” button as he made his rounds.
“Preakness is Baltimore; that’s what it is,” said Young, a Democrat. “We’re going to sit down and work with The Stronach Group see how we can come up with a win-win.”
Officials with Stronach, which owns Pimlico Race Course, have pledged to run the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown there through 2020 — with no promises beyond that. They’ve invested most of their state subsidies in Laurel Park and made clear their intentions to turn that facility into a “super track” capable of hosting races such as the Breeders’ Cup.
To Young, a “win-win” would be keeping both tracks — Pimlico and Laurel — open, even though Stronach has made clear that it’s not interested in investing in Pimlico.
“I think Laurel can come up with what they want, and we can get what we want by keeping the Preakness in Baltimore,” Young said. “I think reasonable minds can differ, but we can sit down and have a conversation. I think we can get there.”
Young said he spoke briefly with Belinda Stronach, The Stronach Group’s chairwoman and president, and they discussed holding future meetings.
Trailing Young was Brandon Scott, the new Baltimore City Council president, also wearing a “Keep Preakness in Baltimore” button.
“Preakness belongs in Baltimore. It belongs here in Park Heights at Pimlico. That’s the place where it should be,” Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, said. “We have to make the investments in the track, and we look forward to working with our partners to make that happen.”
At his annual Preakness-day news conference, Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo said, “We continue to try to work with the city and the state on options to have an experience that the people deserve with a great race like this.
“If it doesn’t move forward at all, it’s the worst, because that’s the status quo, and I don’t think anybody wants that.”
Stronach receives state subsidies from slot machine profits from the state’s casinos, which can be used for track upgrades. The company has spent most of its subsidies on Laurel, and unsuccessfully pushed for legislation this year that would have allowed the state to issue bonds to accelerate the Laurel work.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he wants the Preakness to stay at Pimlico but declined to offer specifics of how to make that work.
“I’d rather it stay here at Pimlico,” Hogan told reporters. “We’re hopeful that cooler heads can prevail and that can get worked out. … It’s definitely here next year, so we have some time to try to work that out.”
Hogan said the prospect of the state spending more on Pimlico could be discussed — but didn’t endorse the idea.
“It’s a fair discussion. That’s what we’ve been discussing,” Hogan said. “Really, the largest role is the people that own the track and the race. But the city and state already are playing a pretty major role.”
Hogan said that, after Preakness, he hoped to talk with Stronach officials and Young about options for helping Pimlico.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said he thinks there’s room for Pimlico and Laurel — which is in his county — to thrive. Pittman, a Democrat, toured the corporate tents with Young and Scott’s group.
Pittman said he’s pleased that Stronach is investing in Laurel, but said that doesn’t mean the track needs to take over the Preakness.
“I think there’s a lot of good work that can happen there. I’m all for what they’re doing there, but Laurel does not need the Preakness to be successful,” said Pittman.
State Sen. Stephen Hershey got his first job as a hotwalker at the Bowie Training Center (also now owned by Stronach) when he was 16 years old. A longtime fan of the Preakness, he questioned whether the parties can have level-headed negotiations.
“I think all the decisions are being made on emotions. The reality is, if you look at what’s best for Maryland racing, unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s Pimlico. It’s Laurel, where they’ve already made substantial investments in getting people there all the time, year-round racing.”
Hershey said he’d “like to be a purist” and push for Preakness to stay and Pimlico, but it might make more sense to move the race to Laurel.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he was at the Preakness to support city officials’ efforts the keep the race at Pimlico.
“We’re here to be a partner and make sure we keep it here and do whatever we can to support them,” said Olszewski, a Democrat.
Discussions are complicated by the fact that the city of Baltimore, under former Mayor Catherine Pugh, sued The Stronach Group earlier this year, attempting to block the company from moving the Preakness Stakes or using bond money for Laurel. It also asked the court to turn over ownership of the track to the city. Stronach officials have asked for the lawsuit to be thrown out; it’s pending in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Maryland law requires that the Preakness Stakes be run in Baltimore, and can move “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.