As politicians mingled and wooed donors and business executives at the 148th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, they once again considered how to keep the thoroughbred horse racing industry in the state alive.
“I want this to be the last Preakness where there is uncertainty about what the future of Pimlico and horse racing in Maryland is,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.
Seemingly every few years, the future of Maryland’s racing industry is thrown up in the air. As recently as four years ago, the corporate owners of Pimlico Race Course were talking about shutting it down and moving year-round racing and the Preakness Stakes to Laurel Park. At the 2019 Preakness, politicians fretted about whether that would come to pass.
The next year, a solution was reached to use state financing to renovate both tracks. But that, too, fell apart — the result of a combination of factors, including inflation, interest rates and expensive tax liabilities for the Stronach Group that owns the track.
Ferguson turned to the “Peanuts” cartoon to explain the frustration of the on-again, off-again plans for reviving horse racing.
“It’s like Lucy and the football, where every time we think we’ve come to a solution, the football gets pulled and everyone’s left guessing where we’re going to be,” he said.
But, as negotiations progress, one thing is becoming clear: The focus has returned to Pimlico as the likely center of thoroughbred racing in Maryland. It’s not clear yet, though, what exactly that would look like, how renovations would be funded and what would happen to Laurel Park.
The focus on Pimlico has Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Park Heights native, thrilled.
“Everything should be at Pimlico, everything,” the Democratic mayor said. “Preakness should be here. We know Preakness is going to be here. We want one investment: Park Heights. Baltimore. Pimlico.”
Scott said it seems as though all parties are “in unison” about reviving Pimlico, and he’s confident a deal will be worked out in the coming months.
The financing deal from 2020 — which involved redirecting $17 million in existing racing subsidies from slot machines to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds — could be reworked to use the same money for a new set of Pimlico-focused plans. Ferguson said there’s no interest among state lawmakers to commit any further money to racing.
Gov. Wes Moore said he wants the racing industry to thrive, but he did not offer his position on whether Pimlico is the best site for consolidating racing.
“The horse racing industry has had a very, very long and important history in the state of Maryland,” the Democratic governor told reporters. “And I’m committed to making sure that it has a long and productive future in the state of Maryland.”
Moore said he wanted to wait for the recommendations that will be coming from a new racing authority that was created this year to study the industry and, if necessary, take over track operations if the Stronach Group were to bow out.
“They are going to come back and get both ideas and best practices, and they’ll come back to me with recommendations,” Moore said.
Moving year-round racing to a renovated Pimlico Race Course would have ripple effects that suburban politicians are watching.
What would happen to Laurel Park, where the majority of thoroughbred races are run?
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said there need to be conversations about what happens to that track. Perhaps some of the land could be used for a public park, or parts could be developed for residential or commercial use.
“There seems to be pretty close to consensus that it looks like Pimlico will be the focus of what happens,” said Pittman, a Democrat. “So that means, as the county executive for Laurel, that we should be thinking about the future of the land.”
One unresolved question, Pittman said, is who will own the property. Will the Stronach Group sell?
“I’m just keeping my ear close to the ground and looking for opportunities to do something good,” he said.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. also is watching the negotiations closely, because it could present an opportunity for the county.
Pimlico doesn’t have the space to add enough barns and facilities to accommodate the entire population of thoroughbreds that need to train. So a second site for training needs to be opened — perhaps in Baltimore County.
“If we can offer up any facilities or support to be part of that solution, we think it’s good for Baltimore, it’s good for our entire region,” said Olszewski, a Democrat.
Political fundraising and hobnobbing
Although the future of horse racing was on the minds of politicians, they also were working a select crowd for political and business deals.
In the infield, Moore and state government officials hosted business leaders in a taxpayer-funded hospitality tent. The cost to socialize with each other and wine and dine execs ran an estimated $200,000, spread across multiple state departments, including commerce, transportation, natural resources, agriculture, housing and community development and the state lottery.
“The race showcases Maryland’s rich equine heritage as the No. 1 state in the country for horses per square mile,” Department of Commerce spokeswoman Karen Glenn Hood said in a statement. “But it also shows our strength as a tourism destination, as well as a location where businesses can grow and thrive.”
She continued: “Business executives are invited to attend so they can see firsthand that Maryland can provide an outstanding quality of life for their employees.”
But just which business executives were invited? State officials promised to release the guest list Monday.
Cabinet secretaries, state lawmakers from both parties and political advisers were among those seen going into the state tent, which was not open to the media.
Next door to the state tent was another tent sponsored by the Democratic Governors Association, where Moore and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro raised money for the group. Moore is the DGA’s finance chair, and Shapiro is the chair of strategic engagement. Tickets were reported to start at $5,000.
Moore told reporters that Gov. Laura Kelly from Kansas and Gov. Phil Murphy from New Jersey were also at the fundraiser, which was not open to the media.
“Part of it was I just wanted to show them Maryland. And let them know that when I say that this is Maryland’s decade, I want to give them a little taste of what exactly we mean and why this place is so important,” Moore said.
He also said it’s important to celebrate the work Democratic governors are doing on issues including gun control, reproductive rights and public education.
“I want to make sure that other governors who are willing to show a level of courage on these issues, I want to let them know that I want to help them and I’ve got their backs,” Moore said.
The Democratic Governors Association hasn’t been at Preakness in eight years, not since Martin O’Malley was governor. For most of the non-pandemic-affected races in recent years, then-Gov. Larry Hogan hosted fundraisers for the Republican Governors Association.