Maryland horse racing is one of many industries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the shutdowns in March and subsequent economic hardships, tracks like Pimlico weren’t exactly flush with cash. Many tracks struggle to make ends meet due to the high costs of horse care and increased competition in the industry.
And while horse racing tracks and businesses of all kinds await word from Governor Larry Hogan to resume racing – even without fans – Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park both received very positive news late last week.
A new law called the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020 approved $375 million in bonds for the redevelopment of Pimlico and Laurel Park and the creation of the Bowie Race Course and Training Center.
Saving a Piece of History
The Baltimore Sun reported in early October 2019 that Pimlico was aging to a point that it could have become unusable. The 149-year-old track was in dire need of renovations.
The Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, previously received subsidies from Maryland to pay for renovations but used 90% ($39 million) of that money at Laurel Park. That left $6 million for Pimlico. At the time, however, The Stronach Group intended to close Pimlico and move its 12 racing days to Laurel Park, which already dominated the Maryland racing scene.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh even sued The Stronach Group for essentially allowing Pimlico to fail, and the city wanted to take over ownership. That happened in March 2019, but by mid-June, the city withdrew its lawsuit in favor of good-faith negotiations. The goal was to revitalize and somehow redevelop Pimlico so as to maintain the historic venue and the health of the surrounding neighborhood.
By October, the city and Stronach had agreed to pursue a bill in the state legislature for funding the improvements at Pimlico. The Stronach Group would donate the land to the city for development, while the funds would be used for a new clubhouse, rotated track, and moving training and stable operations all to Laurel Park.
Also, the Preakness Stakes would stay at Pimlico.
Fighting for Funding
The Racing and Community Development Act of 2020, otherwise known in the state legislature as Maryland SB987, was introduced to state legislators in late 2019, but its sponsors knew it would most likely wait until the 2020 General Assembly session for consideration.
The bill would authorize the Maryland Stadium Authority to borrow the money via municipal bonds sold in the market for the work on the racetracks. They wanted $375 million. And they wanted 30 years to repay it, mostly via slot machine revenue.
SB987 went through its share of changes and debates. Its 13 sponsors held on through three committees, seven votes, four amendments, and 48 actions to get it to the final votes. The House then passed it by 113 to 14 and Senate by 44 to 1.
That happened in March, just before the legislature broke for stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19.
But as lawmakers began to return in May, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh submitted the approved Senate bill to Governor Hogan, who chose not to act on it. And with that lack of action, the bill became law.
Success at a Desperate Time
Pimlico is in dire need of a boost, as are so many other businesses as they emerge from a country-wide societal shutdown due to the pandemic.
According to Maryland Jockey Club Attorney Alan Rifkin, called the capital works projects “shovel-ready” and an “unprecedented reinvestment in the communities of interest served by the tracks.” He then added, “This is truly a defining moment in the history of the Maryland thoroughbred racing industry and the State, and we are most appreciative.”
Of the $375 million approved, the vast majority will go toward Pimlico. After renovations, the new clubhouse and facilities will be used for community and recreational activities and civic events. The money going to Laurel Park will upgrade its facilities to become an equine diagnostic center, modernize the stables and barns, and recover racing and training surfaces.
As tracks like Pimlico and Laurel Park await word from Governor Hogan about reopening, presumptively without spectators at first, they did recent resume simulcasts.
In addition, The Stronach Group and Maryland Jockey Club continue talks regarding a new date for the 145th running of the Preakness Stakes.