By T. D. Thornton
The Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) and the City of Bowie jointly signed a “memorandum of understanding” Mar. 20 that compels the owners of the former Thoroughbred training center at Bowie Race Course to clean up the dilapidated, overgrown 140-acre grounds in the short term while initiating longer-term discussions that could lead to a sale of the property to the municipality.
Bowie last functioned as a training center in April 2015 when MJC consolidated stabling at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. It is zoned both as open space and residential land, and a portion of it backs up to a development called Saddlebrook, the residents of which have complained for years about unsightly, falling-down structures and overgrown vegetation.
Bowie operated as a Thoroughbred track between 1910 and 1985, after which it was kept open for training and stabling. During its heyday, it was known in the summer months as a bucolic track nestled among pine trees, but it also had a harder-edged reputation as a gritty pioneer of East Coast winter racing starting in the 1950s.
According to the Annapolis-based publication Capital Gazette, the city previously tried to buy a parcel of the property for $3 million to develop it into a site for a recreational sports complex. Those negotiations never went through, and earlier this year a bill was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to force the MJC to either establish some useful purpose for the property or sell it to the city.
At Monday's city council meeting, Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said he testified in favor of that bill last month to point out the “rather appalling condition of the site, and how we were really saddened by the way the Jockey Club had allowed it to deteriorate.”
But, the mayor added, seated right behind him at that hearing was MJC vice president and general manager Sal Sinatra, who, “to his credit” got right up and apologized about the neglected conditions, promising that the MJC would clean things up.
Monday's memorandum of understanding, signed by Sinatra on behalf of the MJC, formalizes that promise and now sets a timetable for action.
Within 45 days, the MJC must begin regular mowing, remove overgrowth, submit a design for a “premium fence,” and apply for permits and begin repairs on structures and a covered bridge that once provided horse access across Race Track Road.
Within one year, the MJC must initiate municipal discussions regarding the sale of two separate portions of the property. One is defined as being adjacent to the Patuxent River, the other is “that portion of the property not needed for future stable buildings.”
The memorandum does not in any way limit the MJC from selling the property outright to some other entity besides the city, nor does it prohibit the MJC from reopening the grounds as a training center.
Although that latter possibility is considered remote, The Maryland Stadium Authority has been working on a feasibility study regarding major updates to Pimlico, and if Pimlico's stabling was ever curtailed or shut down for renovations, Bowie could come back into play to accommodate the MJC's horse population.
Fines of $500 daily for non-compliance, capped at $10,000, could be imposed, although council members indicated that the MJC seemed to be entering into the agreement as a willing participant, and that additional cudgels for enforcement did not seem necessary.
To pay for repairs and upkeep, the MJC may apply to the Maryland Racing Commission for matching funds from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, but the memorandum stipulates that failure to secure such funds does not let the MJC off the hook for paying for the agreed-upon maintenance.