Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is blasting the owners of the Pimlico Race Course after the company urged construction of a “super track” for horse racing in Laurel, not Baltimore.
In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan and General Assembly leaders, Pugh urged them to reject The Stronach Group’s efforts to emphasize horse racing at its Laurel Park track. She argued the tracks’ Canadian owners would be happy to leave Pimlico — home to the Preakness Stakes — as nothing more than a “fenced-in vacant lot.”
“Certainly, before throwing away the racing tradition of the Preakness Stakes, the annual ‘Super Bowl’ of Baltimore city, and a generator of significant revenue for Maryland, [The Stronach Group] should be required to demonstrate that they have the bandwidth to create their recently announced ‘super track,’” Pugh wrote. “Their company is in disarray, with father, daughter and now granddaughter suing one another in multiple lawsuits.”
The forceful comments from the mayor come as Stronach officials push for legislation that would permit funding from gambling proceeds to go toward construction at Laurel Park — where the company wants to create the so-called “super track” — and at a training center at the former Bowie Race Course.
Pugh argued “allowing a wealthy family from another country to use Maryland tax money for a racetrack to have as their anchor for the development of their 300-acre site in Laurel would be a travesty.”
The company responded in a statement that Stronach is “extremely disappointed with Mayor Pugh’s recent letter” and said its horse racing business is “strong and getting stronger.”
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo said the company ultimately wants to move the Preakness to Laurel, but remains open to a taxpayer-funded rebuild of Pimlico.
“The Preakness is not just a Baltimore event,” Ritvo said. “It’s a Maryland event. We envision it one day in Laurel.”
Ritvo suggested Pugh partner with the firm for a redevelopment project in Baltimore that does not include horse racing. He added that spending more money on the Park Heights track “doesn’t make economic sense.”
“What is in the best interest of the constituents for that area?” Ritvo asked. “You would think the mayor and the city would look at alternative uses.”
The contentious statements are the latest — and most publicly hostile — exchange between city officials and the track’s owner, a private company.
Baltimore lawmakers have introduced legislation in the current legislative session to require the tracks’ owners to meet with city and state officials to come up with a plan to move forward on an ambitious redevelopment proposal of Pimlico drawn up by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The stadium authority proposal envisions a multi-use development at Pimlico — including the racetrack, but also other entertainment options, shops and homes — at a cost of more than $400 million.
The Stronach Group has been reluctant to invest in Pimlico, focusing instead on expanding and improving Laurel Park, its track in Anne Arundel County. Meanwhile, several Stronach family members are embroiled in a high-dollar legal struggle in Canada over alleged mismanagement.
In a Feb. 8 letter to Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Ritvo urged creation of a single “super track” serving as the “premier venue for major racing events” in Laurel, not Baltimore.
“Operating under the very reasonable assumption that a public investment of more than $400 million in a completely new Pimlico is unlikely, it is clear that a ‘super track’ at Laurel Park and an affiliated training track at Bowie are the best and most logical options,” Ritvo wrote.
He wrote that a $120 million Laurel redevelopment would not need additional state investment because the company could use existing budget allocations for racetrack improvement capital projects.
“Ultimately, a newly renovated Laurel Park is in the best interest of racing and the state of Maryland as a whole,” Ritvo wrote.
Ritvo pledged The Stronach Group would “remain steadfastly committed to the communities surrounding Pimlico, Baltimore city and the entire state of Maryland.”
In Pugh’s letter Friday, the mayor said those promises ring hollow.
“It is disingenuous for them to say they would invest in Pimlico when they have 300 acres at their Laurel location to develop around a promised ‘super track,’” she wrote. “We should not trust, and we should certainly verify.”
Any move of the Preakness would need a change to state law, which requires the race to be run in Baltimore.
In recent weeks, Baltimore officials have been urging lawmakers to move forward with plans for the rebuild of the Pimlico course. The president of the Baltimore Development Corp. told a meeting of Baltimore city and county lawmakers last month that rebuilding Pimlico would likely require an investment by Baltimore taxpayers of at least $125 million for infrastructure — but the project could spur $700 million in additional development in the area.
The 148-year-old track in Park Heights is the home of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. City boosters see the event as part of Baltimore’s rich history and potentially a major economic contributor to one of its poorer neighborhoods, if the track were overhauled.
Representatives for Miller and Busch declined to comment.
Hogan said Tuesday that he had read Pugh’s letter and considered it “strongly worded.”
“Stronach Group doesn’t want to invest in the track, and they own the track,” Hogan said. “Many of us would like to see the Preakness stay in Baltimore and stay at Pimlico, but there’s a lot of money that needs to be invested and the owners of the track don’t want to do it, and the city doesn’t want to do it and the state doesn’t want to do it. So, we’ve got to figure out some kind of a solution.”