The future of Maryland racing has been a subject of much angst in the state for quite some time. There are two tracks, both owned by the Stronach Group, neither in great shape. But nothing seems to get done.
Aidan Butler, chief executive of 1/ST, the racing arm of Stronach, put his cards on the table and declared who he thinks should be the winner.
Pimlico is the future and Laurel is the past.
“The opportunity, I believe, is to concentrate on Pimlico as the racetrack and maybe use Laurel for training or use another location for training,” Butler said in an exclusive interview with The Baltimore Banner. “But if the idea is to build two new racetracks, that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. Personally, if I were to rebuild one, I’d rather rebuild Pimlico.”
This is a considerable swerve from a few years ago when Tim Ritvo, then the top racing executive at Stronach, declared that Laurel would supplant Pimlico as Maryland’s signature track. He even wanted to move the Preakness to Laurel and talked about hosting the Breeders’ Cup.
Ritvo left the company nearly a year after a huge spike in horse deaths at Santa Anita, which is also a Stronach property.
“From my perspective, it probably never should have been looked at as a home for the Preakness,” Butler said. “And I don’t think it should ever be. Pimlico is Pimlico. The old gal has some troubles, but this is the thing we really need to concentrate on.”
The sad shape of the Pimlico facility has been well chronicled the past few years, from a condemned area of the grandstand to water issues at the facility.
But every year, the track opens for a few weeks and hosts the second leg of the Triple Crown. Saturday’s race is considered to have a weak field, with only one horse coming from the Kentucky Derby — Mage, the winner. Many in the crowd are more excited about the post-race entertainment, Bruno Mars, who will be playing in the infield.
“Historically, there are tracks everywhere,” Butler said. “We have to have a modernization, a consolidation. So, which one are we picking? Tim looked at [Pimlico] and saw this a heavy lift and spent real money on Laurel. But that lipstick didn’t fit on that pig regardless. It was never going to work.”
The cost of fixing Pimlico is somewhere between $450 million and $600 million, depending on who you talk to. Butler thinks the financing can be arranged but didn’t go into specifics.
“You really need to put all your eggs in one basket and get a racetrack that fits the bill,” Butler said. “And we should reinvest in Pimlico. That’s fact. But I understand that for Pimlico to be successful there needs to be a training ecosystem that continues to work. That way, we aren’t burying Laurel. Pick your poison, which racetrack do you want to build? Both of them need a redo.”
Laurel made headlines when five horses died in April. It caused the track to suspend racing for a few days while the track was examined. This isn’t new to Laurel. The same thing happened in 2021.
“The first year the base started eroding,” said Butler, referencing the material that is under the dirt. “It’s like anything, if the base isn’t good, whatever you put on top of it isn’t going to be great. We needed to add way more cushion material to bring this back up. Then we had another issue with a part of the track, we had to dig it up and start again. That was six months ago.”
But the problem still wasn’t fixed.
“This year, it was actually part of the original work that hadn’t cured properly,” Butler said. “There was one section that wasn’t right. It was flicking up a little, so they pulled it back and refixed the base. The other stuff wasn’t a problem, let’s say it was few people’s opinions.”
The “other stuff” was a growing resentment between the horsemen and some at the track. The horsemen wanted to bring in a former track superintendent to examine the track, which 1/ST denied. The track later acquiesced, and John Passero declared the track safe after making small changes.
The Maryland Jockey Club, which is owned by Stronach, also announced they were going to introduce stricter safety protocols similar to those enacted in California after the death spike in 2019.
California has had a 55% decrease in horse fatalities since the introduction of those protocols in 2019. It leads to the question: If this was so successful, why wasn’t it already in place in Maryland?
“There’s always been a conversation about different regulations in different jurisdictions,” Butler said. “What we did in California, no one knew how that was going to work out. Then we immediately went into a pandemic, which was not handy, either. And we now have HISA (Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority) coming forward. It’s not a unilateral decision, it includes having horsemen and other stakeholders agreeing or there is nothing you can do.”
HISA is the federal oversight group that is still trying to find its feet after being given the task of making rules and regulations standard throughout the country. It hasn’t really been fully implemented, as it has been fighting legal challenges from several states and some horsemen’s groups.
“We have not only asked the commission but the MTHA (Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association) numerous times to move this way,” Butler said. “There was a little grace time given because of HISA. We knew HISA was coming and should already be here. If you can have a federal agency create a level playing field, that’s the way to go.”
If delays or problems continue, Butler said he’s willing to take a hard-line approach to add more safety protocols to all of Maryland racing, regardless of its location.
“If for some reason HISA isn’t there, we’ll have to go it alone,” Butler said. “We’ll have to have those tough conversations with stakeholders. We’re willing to do that.”
But for at least a few days, and with the hope that nothing goes wrong, Maryland racing will be celebrated and not questioned. And if Butler has his way, a new direction has been identified.