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Maryland horsemen defend Stronach Group as company comes under fire in Preakness debate

This won't be the last year the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, is run at Baltimore’s 149-year-old Pimlico Race Course. Even if state law is changed to permit the track owner to move the race to Laurel Park, the company says it couldn't be ready for a 2020 run. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

Cathal Lynch did not decide to uproot his successful thoroughbred racing operation lightly. But the 44-year-old trainer brought his horses, and his family, from Pennsylvania to a new base at Laurel Park in 2016 because he believed Maryland racing was moving in the right direction under the stewardship of the Stronach Group.

So as debate around the future of Pimlico Race Course intensifies — with Baltimore officials launching sharp attacks on Stronach for its ambition to move the Preakness Stakes to Laurel — Lynch felt compelled to speak up for the track operator.

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“I’m a big fan of what they’ve done here,” Lynch said this week. “I think the Stronach Group has put in a lot of money and a lot of effort. Some people are a little frustrated that it’s not all-new barns and all-new training tracks everywhere, but those things take time.”

Critics have painted Stronach, which owns and operates Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway, as an opportunistic out-of-town company seeking to siphon state funds even as it robs Baltimore of a signature event.

But Lynch pointed to the investments Stronach has made at Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita Park in California to make those “destination” tracks. “I think that’s what they’re trying to do at Laurel,” he said. “There are not a lot of people willing to do that and put their own money up to make that happen. So I commend them for that. … I think we’re lucky to have them.”

Lynch’s sentiment is shared among many in Maryland’s racing industry, who praise the Canada-based Stronach Group as a partner and a rare company willing to spend millions of dollars to boost an industry beset by dwindling revenues and facility closures in many states.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has bashed the Stronach Group in recent letters to Gov. Larry Hogan and legislative leaders. She wrote that “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.”

Horsemen said they understood why Pugh was mounting a spirited effort to keep the Preakness in Baltimore. They revere the race’s history at Pimlico. But they also said the Stronach Group has made a practical choice by devoting most of its spending — 90 percent of the $22.5 million in matching funds received from Maryland’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal program since 2013 — to Laurel Park.

“They’re looking at the numbers, and I hate to say it, but Laurel seems to work, and Pimlico doesn’t,” said trainer Mike Trombetta, a Maryland native who stables horses at Laurel and Fair Hill in Cecil County.

“There’s not an easy answer for anybody,” said nationally successful trainer Graham Motion, who’s based at the Fair Hill Training Center and frequently runs his horses at Laurel Park. “To realistically expect them to be able to maintain three racetracks, that’s asking an awful lot. It doesn’t seem like a good business program. But with that in mind, they’ve had this dilemma of how to handle the Preakness at a facility that not many people want to go to.”

Many of the trainers who dominate the standings at Laurel have deep roots in Maryland and warm memories of running at Pimlico.

It’s not as if they want to see the venerable Baltimore track, which has hosted just 12 days of racing in recent years, shuttered for good.

“It would be a very sad occasion,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “It’s part of the history of my life and part of the history of Maryland. But I also know that times have changed, and what sport hasn’t had to deal with that?”

For many Marylanders, thoughts of horse racing begin and end with the Preakness. But for those making a daily living in the industry, it’s hardly the most important issue.

“The simple answer for us is we’re working on the same team as our track owners, and if they’re not profitable, they can’t provide us more racing days,” the 52-year-old Trombetta said. “That’s what we want. … We want more racing days with competitive purses, any way that they can get there.”

Foreman noted that those in Maryland’s racing industry watched for years as Laurel and Pimlico deteriorated while industry leaders waited for a racetrack casino that never came. Given that context, they’re thrilled with Stronach’s investment in a potential “super track” at Laurel Park, even if that means an eventual end to racing at Pimlico.

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“There are some horsemen who would love to see Pimlico rebuilt, would love to see year-round training there in addition to what’s being done at Laurel,” Foreman said. “In a perfect world, everybody would love that. But economically, how do you make that work? I don’t know that you can.”

A study funded by the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Stronach-owned Maryland Jockey Club, the Baltimore Development Corp. and the city of Baltimore proposed in December a $424 million restoration of Pimlico. Foreman noted that such a restoration would not meet the industry’s practical need for a year-round training facility. By contrast, legislation supported by the Stronach Group, which calls for a $120 million state bond issue to support further development at Laurel Park, would help the track operator revive its training center in Bowie, closed since 2015.

Relations between the horsemen and Stronach were not always harmonious after the Canadian company bought Pimlico and Laurel in 2002. The sides reached such an impasse in 2010 that former Gov. Martin O’Malley called them to Annapolis so he could broker a peaceful working agreement.

That eventually led to a 10-year pact — built on a guarantee of at least 100 racing days a year and subsidies of up to $100 million from the horsemen — that has brought stability to one of Maryland’s oldest industries.

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Because the collaboration has been successful, leading to more racing days and more lucrative purses, and because Stronach has invested almost $40 million in the backstretch and clubhouse at Laurel Park, those in the industry say the track operator deserves the benefit of the doubt.

“You will not find another racetrack ownership group in the United States that has put more of their money into racing and capital improvements and innovation than the Stronach Group,” Foreman said. “I don’t know that there are any more that will exist after them. So to criticize them and essentially vilify them, it’s concerning to people in the industry. They’ve been good for Maryland racing, and they’ve been good for racing throughout the country.”

This week, Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group’s racing division, said the company would operate Preakness at Pimlico through 2020, as Laurel would not be ready to host the race by May of next year.

Pugh said she looked forward to participating in a proposed work group to study Pimlico’s long-term outlook. The mayor intends to testify Friday in Annapolis in support of a bill that would require Stronach officials to participate in the work group.

“Our focus will be on keeping the Preakness at its home in Baltimore,” Pugh said.

This maelstrom would not be roiling if not for the magnitude of the Preakness, both as an institution on Baltimore’s event calendar and as one of thoroughbred racing’s historical touchstones.

Motion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, and he’s never experienced a greater career thrill than bringing the Derby champion to Pimlico for the Preakness.

“You’re the one horse that can win the Triple Crown, and that’s just an extraordinary feeling,” he said. “You’re the one person on that day that everybody’s rooting for.”

But Motion, one of the most respected and even-tempered trainers in the sport, is not convinced that magic would be lost if the race moved to Laurel.

“I think initially, it seems like a strange idea,” he said. “But over the course of time, it’s something we would just get accustomed to. It’s a Maryland event. I think … if it was to move to Laurel, everyone would get accustomed to the fact it’s something that needed to happen. I don’t think it would affect the history long-term.”

The change might be seismic for Baltimore sports fans who equate losing the race to watching the Colts depart for Indianapolis 35 years ago. But the practical impact to the state’s horsemen would be less obvious. As long as Preakness Day at Laurel still generated a healthy betting handle — which Foreman deemed likely given the import of the headlining race — the economic benefit to horsemen would be the same.

“I think Laurel could put on a good show,” Lynch said. “It’s a great facility. Why not start a new legacy?”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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