The plan for Maryland’s state government to take over ownership of Baltimore’s historic Pimlico Race Course cleared its first hurdle in Annapolis on Wednesday.

A House of Delegates committee voted — with a few Republican dissenters — to advance the plan to the full House for a vote. Lawmakers must approve legislation for the complex racetrack deal to move forward.

The plan has been billed as a way for the state to control the future of the thoroughbred industry, which has struggled to remain viable for years. The two main racetracks, owned by the private Stronach Group, have deteriorated, and past plans to renovate them have faltered. The racing industry and fans have worried about the fate of the Preakness Stakes, the second race in horse racing’s Triple Crown held each May.

Greg Cross, chair of a state authority charting the future of the industry, previously told lawmakers this plan means “the state would be investing in itself and the equine industry.”

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Under the proposal, the Stronach Group, also known as 1/ST Racing and Gaming, would transfer ownership of Pimlico to the state government as soon as this summer. The state would issue bonds to raise up to $400 million to tear down the grandstand, build new seating and track facilities, construct housing for track workers and create a new training center at a location to be determined.

The bonds would be paid off by using existing racing subsidies and lottery funds that were earmarked in 2020 for renovation plans that never came to pass. No general budget funds would be used.

A yet-to-be-created nonprofit organization would eventually take over day-to-day racing operations at the track. The nonprofit will adopt the name of the Maryland Jockey Club, the organization that’s been associated with thoroughbred racing in the state since the 1700s.

Stronach would exit the thoroughbred industry in Maryland while maintaining ownership of the rights to run the Preakness Stakes, which it would license to the state for $3 million per year, plus 2% of the gross betting handle on Preakness Day and Black-Eyed Susan Day. The Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, for 3-year-old fillies, runs the day before Preakness.

The Stronach-owned Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County would host racing while Pimlico is renovated, but after that racing would cease there. Stronach would continue to own the Laurel property, and the company has not announced its long-term intentions for the site.

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Lawmakers on the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee expressed reservations when the bill was presented to them last week. Some worried whether the new nonprofit track operators could turn a profit when a private company could not.

Del. Jason Buckel, a Western Maryland Republican, spent much of Wednesday’s 15-minute voting session quizzing a committee lawyer on the specifics of the deal and where the money is going. Ultimately, Buckel and a handful of Republicans voted opposed, but all the Democrats on the committee voted in favor.

The bill moves to the full House of Delegates, and then the entire process would be repeated in the state Senate. The bill must move quickly, because lawmakers adjourn their annual 90-day session at midnight April 8.

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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