When I heard the particulars of the new plan to rebuild Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, three words came to mind.
Make it happen.
No, really, just make it happen. Get the legislative votes. Make sure Gov. Larry Hogan buys in. Compromise, but not too much, where you have to. Keep Baltimore engaged. Just get it done. The plan, hatched over months of discussions between interested parties, was unveiled in October via an article in The Baltimore Sun and then in a presentation to horsemen and others at Laurel Oct. 8.
You can read more in The Sun or on theracingbiz.com (see page 10).
The plan is bold, brave, outside the box, a little bit risky. But it just might work, thanks to the efforts of the Maryland Thor-oughbred Horsemen’s Association’s Alan Foreman, the Maryland Jockey Club’s Alan Rifkin, city representative Bill Cole and Thoroughbred owner/real-estate developer Anthony Manganaro. They came together to find a workable solution with three main goals – the Preakness must stay in Baltimore, the year-round racing product must stay strong, and the funding must come from available sources.
In its simplest form, the plan:
• Rebuilds Pimlico into a world-class home for the Preakness Stakes-G1 and other big racing events, with the facility being donated to the city of Baltimore or another entity and leased back to The Stronach Group to conduct racing. Year-round training would cease, but the property would become part of the community with development areas, athletic fields, public event spaces and more. The racetrack itself would be pivoted to parallel existing city streets, and open more land to development. A smaller clubhouse building would serve several purposes, and much of the Preakness amenities would consist of temporary overlays much like a golf tournament, downtown Grand Prix auto race or other sporting event.
• Rebuilds Laurel to be the state’s base of year-round Thoroughbred racing complete with a new stable area, clubhouse/grandstand building, paddock area and more. A synthetic racing/training surface would be added to the existing dirt and turf courses. The new stable area will be able to house more than 1,500 horses in new barns, and backstretch workers would get new residences.
The ambitious plans can get achieved by leveraging assets available to racing – the land the two tracks plus the former Bowie Race Track occupy and three sources of annual revenue generated by casino gaming: the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, the Purse Dedication Account, and funding earmarked for the community surrounding Pimlico. All told, about $17 million in annual funding would be activated – $8.6 million from the RFRA, an additional $5 million from the purse account and $3.5 million from Baltimore City – to help finance $375 million in upgrades to both tracks and their surrounding infrastructure. The math involves low-interest bonds and an extension of the RFRA for 30 years (it’s set to start phasing out in 2026 and be fully gone in 2032).
Foreman and company worked with the Maryland Stadium Authority, which brought in event-space construction expert Populous to “vet” the plan.
Financially, it works.
The whole thing requires legislative approval, and Foreman said work has already begun on what he called the Racing and Community Redevelopment Act of 2020. The biggest potential obstacle comes in the form of the RFRA extension and other targets for racing’s casino subsidy. Politics being politics, it won’t necessarily be easy, but the proposal offers a workable solution – one that doesn’t burden any party unfairly.
Maryland racing’s community should be for this. Every part of it. There will be some sacrifices, such as the loss of Pimlico as a training facility, but weigh those against the alternative of a one-racetrack state, status quo when it comes to old facilities, lawsuits between track ownership and various forms of government and seemingly annual discussions about the slots subsidy. The recommendations on the table call for a state-of-the-art facility for year-round racing at Laurel, a long-term home for the Preakness in Baltimore and a stable climate for the industry.
Beyond racing, the recommendation can help revitalize a part of Baltimore sorely in need of investment and some good news.
As Foreman is fond of saying, “Put a pricetag on that.” Or, more succinctly, if you’re not in favor of that then what are you in favor of?
Years ago, when the industry was fighting for survival and the racetrack owners applied for just 40 days of live racing (compared to today’s 180-plus), state leaders and legislators told racing to consider its future, to stop the back-and-forth, to act as one industry. That was a crossroads, where the wrong turn might have ended the Maryland Thoroughbred industry as we know it. Instead, racing followed the directive, came together, figured out how to manage, share and be a good steward of its portion of the casino subsidy – and the result was a resurgence.
I can’t help but think this is a similar opportunity. Perhaps the last.