Sav­ing Pim­lico is race for city

Lead­ers say they will have to fight to keep Preak­ness here

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker and Doug Dono­van

Ten weeks af­ter a study rec­om­mended that the city, state and Pim­lico Race Course owner ne­go­ti­ate over the track’s fu­ture, the di­a­logue has be­come strained and Bal­ti­more’s elected of­fi­cials and busi­ness lead­ers say they must bat­tle to pre­vent the Preak­ness Stakes from ditch­ing its home as the NFL’s Colts did in 1984.

“There is no longer any ques­tion that they want to aban­don Pim­lico,” Del. Sandy I. Rosen­berg said of The Stronach Group, the Cana­dian horse rac­ing con­glom­er­ate that owns Pim­lico. The faded, 149-year-old track is the an­nual home of the Preak­ness, Mary­land’s largest and splashiest sport­ing event.

Rosen­berg, a Bal­ti­more Demo­crat whose dis­trict in­cludes Pim­lico, and city lead­ers say they are strate­giz­ing to pre­vent a Preak­ness exit that would take a piece of the city's iden­tity with it.

“Al­low­ing the Stronach fam­ily to take the Preak­ness is eerily rem­i­nis­cent of the Ir­say fam­ily steal­ing the Colts from Bal­ti­more in the dead of night,” said Bal­ti­more De­vel­op­ment Corp. Pres­i­dent Wil­liam H. Cole IV. “The Mayflower mov­ing truck is idling right now, and it needs to stop.”

Stronach says Pim­lico is no longer vi­able and that it’s not worth spend­ing more than $400 mil­lion to re­build a track that stages just 12 rac­ing days a year. In a Feb. 8 let­ter to Gov. Larry Ho­gan and Gen­eral As­sem­bly lead­ers, Stronach Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer

Tim Ritvo said the best plan was the cre­ation of a “su­per track” at Lau­rel Park, which the com­pany also owns.

In her own let­ter to Ho­gan and top leg­is­la­tors, Bal­ti­more Mayor Cather­ine Pugh force­fully ar­gued against the state as­sist­ing Stronach in Lau­rel's ren­o­va­tion. "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,” she wrote.

In her let­ter, Pugh al­luded to a Stronach fam­ily feud, and said the com­pany was “in dis­ar­ray.” In Oc­to­ber, a law­suit Cana­dian bil­lion­aire Frank Stronach filed against his daugh­ter, Belinda Stronach, re­vealed an ex­plo­sive power strug­gle and spend­ing dis­pute be­tween the pa­tri­arch and his heir.

The es­ca­lat­ing rhetoric be­tween the city and the Stronach com­pany “is trou­bling for the rac­ing in­dus­try,” said Alan Fore­man, gen­eral coun­sel for the Mary­land Thor­ough­bred Horse­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

In par­tic­u­lar, Fore­man said, the mayor’s let­ter “did not sit well with the in­dus­try” be­cause it didn't rec­og­nize the ef­forts of The Stronach Group, horse­men and breed­ers to re­build Mary­land rac­ing.

“None­the­less, we all rec­og­nize that the pos­si­ble move of the Preak­ness and the clos­ing of Pim­lico as a race­track cre­ates a huge eco­nomic and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cern. It is a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion,” Fore­man said.

Long in de­cline, horse rac­ing in Mary­land has re­bounded in re­cent years. Un­der leg­is­la­tion ap­proved in 2008, the state sub­si­dizes the in­dus­try with a per­cent­age of casino slot ma­chine rev­enues. But Fore­man said: “It didn’t just hap­pen be­cause of the in­fu­sion of [slot] rev­enues.”

City of­fi­cials and de­vel­op­ers con­sider a re­built Pim­lico — with the pres­tige of the Preak­ness, the sec­ond leg of horse rac­ing’s Triple Crown — vi­tal to the rede­vel­op­ment of a dis­tressed area of Bal­ti­more.

In the city’s vi­sion for the track, a new plaza would serve as a sad­dling area dur­ing Preak­ness week and be used the rest of the year for pub­lic con­certs, per­form­ing arts, fes­ti­vals and open-air mar­kets. A Mary­land Sta­dium Au­thor­ity-funded study in De­cem­ber said that re­align­ment of the tracks and in­field could en­cour­age pri­vate de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing an ex­panded LifeBridge Health med­i­cal cam­pus.

“What you don’t want to lose is your an­chor,” said David Cordish, whose Bal­ti­more de­vel­op­ment com­pany owns Power Plant Live down­town and Live Casino & Ho­tel in Hanover.

To pre­serve the Preak­ness, Cordish said Bal­ti­more-area law­mak­ers have sev­eral tools.

One is a state law say­ing the race can be moved to an­other track in Mary­land “only as a re­sult of a dis­as­ter or emer­gency."

Leg­is­la­tors could also pro­pose end­ing the horse rac­ing sub­si­dies, Cordish said. The in­dus­try re­ceived more than $71 mil­lion of casino gam­ing rev­enues in the 2018 fis­cal year.

“This is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the Mayflower in that Bal­ti­more City and the state have weapons,” Cordish said.

The eco­nomic im­pact of the Preak­ness has been es­ti­mated in var­i­ous stud­ies at more than $30 mil­lion an­nu­ally.

If rac­ing does leave Pim­lico, Ritvo said, The Stronach Group would help the prop­erty and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties thrive un­der some other use.

“We are com­mit­ted to not leave it as an empty bar­ren land,” Ritvo said.

The sta­dium au­thor­ity study pro­posed re­plac­ing Pim­lico with a stylish new track es­ti­mated at $424 mil­lion. The plan em­braced by the city - in­cludes a four-level club­house and plaza area and is de­signed to open the ameni­ties to the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity year-round.

But no one has stepped up to pay the siz­able tab.

The study sug­gested that Stronach, the city and state “en­ter into fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions” over Pim­lico.

Leg­is­la­tion pend­ing in the Gen­eral As­sem­bly would bring the par­ties to­gether in a work group “to study and make rec­om­men­da­tions re­gard­ing fi­nanc­ing op­tions” for re­build­ing Pim­lico.

“We need all par­ties, in­clud­ing Stronach, to come to the ta­ble,” said Don­ald C. Fry, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Greater Bal­ti­more Com­mit­tee. “I think pas­sage of the leg­is­la­tion would bring them to the ta­ble.”

Hear­ings on the bill are sched­uled for March 1 in the House, and five days later in the Se­nate.

Ritvo said in an email that the Stronach com­pany “be­lieves that there has been am­ple op­por­tu­nity over the past three-plus years to study Pim­lico Race Course and that the time is now to make de­ci­sions about the fu­ture of Mary­land rac­ing.” While the com­pany does not op­pose ef­forts to bring par­ties to­gether, he said leg­is­la­tion “that calls for yet an­other study on the race track with dis­cus­sions not start­ing un­til July does not rec­og­nize the ur­gency of the mat­ter and fails to take into con­sid­er­a­tion po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives that would best serve the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, thor­ough­bred rac­ing or its as­so­ci­ated in­dus­tries.”

Cole said the city and state have spent more than $100 mil­lion— in­clud­ing on schools, a re­cre­ation cen­ter and to raze prop­erty — to make Park Heights ready for rede­vel­op­ment.

Ritvo pointed to the city’s Park Heights rede­vel­op­ment plan, which was com­mis­sioned in 2003 and rec­om­mended four al­ter­na­tives for the Pim­lico prop­erty. Only one en­vi­sioned keep­ing the race­track.

“If the rac­ing ac­tiv­i­ties are re­lo­cated, the site’s 140-plus acres would rep­re­sent pos­si­bly the most ex­cit­ing rede­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­nity in the Bal­ti­more re­gion,” the plan stated.

“I don’t blame the mayor for things that hap­pened 20 years ago,” Ritvo said. “I don’t want her to blame us to say we haven’t kept up the Preak­ness. It was in trou­ble be­fore we bought it” in 2002, un­der the name Magna En­ter­tain­ment.

Ritvo re­ferred to the city’s rede­vel­op­ment plan as proof that Bal­ti­more has been in­ter­ested in life with­out the Preak­ness.

The com­pany said it wanted to pro­vide year-round rac­ing in Mary­land. Con­sol­i­dat­ing two tracks into a Lau­rel “su­per track” – a con­cept that proved suc­cess­ful at the com­pany’s Florida fa­cil­i­ties – is key for Mary­land rac­ing and horse breed­ing to thrive, Ritvo said.

But Rosen­berg, the state del­e­gate, said: “What is on the ta­ble now is not a re­port that is 16 years old, but the Mary­land Sta­dium Au­thor­ity re­port un­der­writ­ten in sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure by the Mary­land Jockey Club.” The Jockey Club op­er­ates Pim­lico and Lau­rel for Stronach.

“The Daily Rac­ing Form in­cludes past per­for­mances,” Rosen­berg said, “but never for a race that was 16 years ago.”


The 149-year-old Pim­lico Race Course is the an­nual home for the Preak­ness, one of horse rac­ing’s Triple Crown events and the largest sport­ing event in Mary­land. The Stronach Group, which owns Pim­lico, has ex­pressed in­ter­est in mov­ing the race to Lau­rel Park.

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