The owner of Pimlico Race Course has reached an agreement to donate the historic Baltimore track to the Maryland state government, allowing the state to take over operations of the storied sport of thoroughbred horse racing, officials said Thursday.

The Stronach Group, which has owned Pimlico for more than two decades, has made a “binding commitment” to transfer the track to the state as early as this summer, according to state officials, with the state taking over racing operations next year. Stronach will retain the rights to the Preakness Stakes name and lease it to the state — the amount was not disclosed — for the annual Triple Crown race.

The handoff will allow the state to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into modernizing the track, as well as building a new training center at a location to be determined. A bill was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly on Thursday to pave the way for the construction and for the state to eventually run daily racing through a nonprofit entity that will be created.

“This is a new day. ... We get to bet on ourselves. We’re going to control our own destiny,” said Greg Cross, a Baltimore attorney who leads a state authority that came up with the plan and negotiated the deal with the Stronach Group.

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Cross chairs the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority that was created last year and spent the better part of 2023 charting a new path for the industry.

Craig Fravel, executive vice chairman of Stronach’s 1/ST Racing & Gaming, issued a statement thanking Cross and the state for their collaboration.

Since January, Fravel wrote, the parties “have engaged in extensive negotiations directed at finalizing a comprehensive agreement.”

“That agreement aims to secure a sustainable future for the Maryland Thoroughbred racing industry and ensure the successful operation of Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness in Baltimore,” Fravel wrote.

Under the plan, Stronach will give up ownership of Pimlico while retaining Laurel Park, its other thoroughbred racetrack in Anne Arundel County.

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Laurel Park will temporarily host racing — including the 2026 Preakness Stakes — while Pimlico is rebuilt, then racing will be phased out there. It’s unclear what Stronach plans to do with the Laurel property after racing ends there.

In order for the deal to go through, state lawmakers will need to pass legislation in Annapolis over the next several weeks.

A bill introduced on Thursday reworks previous plans approved in 2020 that would have used existing racing subsidies and lottery profits to pay for renovating both Pimlico and Laurel, with both tracks remaining in the ownership of Stronach. That plan fell through, stymied by pandemic delays, inflationary pressures and an unexpected potential tax hit on Stronach.

Dubbed “Pimlico Plus,” the new plan calls for Pimlico to be donated to the state and for the state to reshuffle existing racing subsidies to renovate the track, and then for a state entity to oversee racing operations. Part of the property would be dedicated to commercial development.

The plan also calls for the state to open a new training center in a yet-to-be-determined location, because Pimlico isn’t large enough to accommodate all of the horses and trainers that need space to train on a daily basis.

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The legislation will allow the state to issue up to $400 million in bonds for Pimlico and the future training center — an increase from the $375 million price tag of the prior Pimlico-and-Laurel renovation plan.

A nonprofit entity, which is yet to be created, will be responsible for running races at Pimlico with oversight from the state. The target is to have about 140 days of racing a year, state officials said.

That setup follows a model used in New York, where the nonprofit New York Racing Association operates three thoroughbred tracks owned by the state, including Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes Triple Crown race.

“It’s a historic moment for Maryland racing,” said Alan Foreman, a member of the state racetrack operating authority who serves as counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, a group representing owners and trainers.

Stronach had to keep two dilapidated tracks running on a limited stream of revenue, Foreman said. Now the state will be able to do a cost-effective consolidation at one track that will be updated to cater to changing tastes of sports fans, he said.

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Late-session legislation

The legislation comes late in the 90-day General Assembly session. But legislative leaders have signaled that this is an important issue that will not fall victim to procedural deadlines.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat and chair of the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee, told The Baltimore Banner that hearings on the bill in her committee could happen as soon as Friday.

Sen. Guy Guzzone, who chairs a Senate committee that will also review the bill, said lawmakers will take a close look at the details. He said he hadn’t yet seen the bill and wasn’t anticipating it would be introduced on Thursday.

Guzzone said he’d like to see a signed agreement between Stronach and the state, as well as the details of how the industry would be run going forward.

“I want to understand all of the component parts,” he said.

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Also of concern is the growing price tag and what that may mean for state finances.

“I take every dollar seriously, so we’ll give it a good look all around,” said Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat.

The seating area at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County is empty on a non-racing day, June 6, 2023.
The seating area at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County is empty on a nonracing day in 2023. (Pamela Wood)

If the legislation passes and is signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore, and the Board of Public Works approves, the deal between Stronach and the state could close around June 1. The state would officially take ownership of the property by July 1, and take over racing operations on Jan. 1, state officials said.

Lawmakers who represent the district that includes Pimlico have a bill pending in the General Assembly that would require neighborhood residents and city officials to be consulted for a “community development plan” around the racetrack property. Their bill has been on hold, though, as they waited for the racetrack deal and related legislation to be announced.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott posted on social media: “Bright future for Pimlico ahead!”

“Excited to see the possibilities for this landmark in the neighborhood where I grew up,” wrote the mayor, a Democrat running for re-election.

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby said in a statement that the agreement and redevelopment plan is “a monumental win” for the state, the city and the neighborhoods near the track.

Mosby, a Democrat running for reelection, recalled working to preserve Pimlico and the Preakness when he was a state delegate.

“I’m elated with the latest decision and I applaud the Governor and his leadership in this effort,” Mosby wrote in the statement.

A map of the proposal to renovate Pimlico Race Course and align the track so it runs parallel with North Avenue.
A map of a proposal to renovate Pimlico Race Course and rotate the alignment of the track. (Populous)

There are several unanswered questions about the track deal and legislation. The state has not picked a site for the proposed training center, though a decision could come later this year. The plan identified three options: a Stronach-owned shuttered training track in Bowie, Mitchell Farm in Harford County and Shamrock Farm in Carroll County.

Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly has advocated for the Mitchell Farm in Perryman, writing to lawmakers that the property would have everything the state is looking for: two training tracks, ample stalls, dorms, an equine wellness center and flat terrain. The Harford County Council followed by adopting a resolution urging the state to buy the farm to turn it into a training center, calling it “an ideal use for the land.”

Left unsaid by Harford leaders is a proposed use for the land that many find to be less-than-ideal: A commercial real estate firm has proposed using part of the 700-acre farm property to build warehouses, a project that’s run into community opposition and litigation.

Cross, the chair of the authority that developed the plan, said he hoped a training site location will be selected by the end of the year.

Cross said the state has tried over and over again to resolve issues with the thoroughbred racing industry. But there’s never been a successful resolution.

“There is a genuine desire to get it right,” he said.

Baltimore Banner reporter Brandon Weigel contributed to this report.

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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