Differences Over 'Pimlico Plus' Project, Proponents Say 'We can't let perfect get in the way of good'

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Acknowledging that there are differences of opinion about specifics of the “Pimlico Plus” plan that envisions a publicly funded future of racing at a state-owned, modernized track in Baltimore, the construction of a new training facility elsewhere, and a non-profit operator taking over day-to-day racing, the leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority (MTROA) on Thursday asked stakeholders not to let quibbling over details derail the larger goal of getting the ambitious plan approved by the legislature so that horsemen can control their own destiny.

“There are a lot of skeptics,” said Alan Foreman, who is the general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) and is also that group's representative on the MTROA. “Some of the critics have already come out very quickly without letting us continue to do our work. My own personal perspective is the status quo in racing is simply not going to survive going forward. We have a once-in-lifetime opportunity here. This will not present itself again. And we can't let the perfect get in the way of the good.”

The MTROA's vision for the $400-million makeover, which was made public in a Jan. 5 report, has a number of key components coming into alignment right now, Foreman said.

There is support from the Maryland governor, the speaker of the House, and the president of the Senate, Foreman said.

In addition, The Stronach Group (AKA 1/ST Racing and Gaming), which owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has agreed in principle to an exit strategy that would turn over ownership of Pimlico to the state and cede control of daily Thoroughbred racing operations to an entity that would function similarly to the New York Racing Association (NYRA).

In exchange, The Stronach Group would be allowed to eventually sell or redevelop Laurel while retaining rights for Maryland's two signature races, the Preakness S. and the Black-Eyed Susan S. Those rights would then be leased back to the new operating entity.

Despite the momentum the project seemingly has going for it, Gregory Cross, the MTROA's chair, warned that getting Pimlico Plus signed into law is far from a slam-dunk.

“It's an extremely, extremely difficult budget year,” Cross said. “We're lucky to be preserving what we have [and] fitting it [into] what has been allocated-very lucky.”

Foreman agreed: “We're really threading the needle here, folks.”

Added Cross, “While we have been given some support, it's far from an assurance of passage, so we've got a lot of work to do.”

That work, Foreman, said, includes not just the passage of legislation, but acquiring and beginning development on a training center, engaging a design consultant to flesh out the reimagined Pimlico beyond the broad concept that is currently on paper, signing off on negotiations with The Stronach Group, and putting together the non-profit operating team.

The MTROA would like all of that done by Jan. 1, 2025.

“There are only two states in the country where there is any forward-thinking development going on,” Foreman said. “NYRA, which is rebuilding Belmont, and now it's going to be Maryland racing. We have a very unique opportunity to position Maryland racing for the future. Through this project, I think we guarantee at least a portion of our funding base with the General Assembly. [But if] we didn't do this, we wouldn't be protected going forward.”

The MTROA envisions between 140 and 160 racing dates per year at Pimlico.

Foreman said the alternative, based on a presentation The Stronach Group made to the MTHA, would nearly slice that number in half.

“The Stronach Group's vision of the future is a maximum of 80 live racing dates in Maryland,” Foreman said. “Two 40-day boutique meets, with a shift of [gaming] revenue from the horsemen and breeders to them, to make them profitable. Under the current scenario, they do not see a way in which they would invest any money into the Maryland tracks. So we would be essentially at the status quo if we don't do any of this.”

Foreman continued: “Can you sustain live racing, and can you sustain a breeding industry, on 80 live racing days with vastly inflated purses, which is going to squeeze out the middle and the small horsemen, and bring probably large, out-of-state outfits into the state of Maryland? Where [else] do we think we can do something where we can control our own destiny and make this work?”

Foreman said he “firmly believes” Pimlico Plus is feasible. He further noted that the MTHA currently pays “$11-plus million” in subsidies to the Stronach Group just to conduct basic operations that keep the sport running at Laurel (which has been besieged by main-track safety issues for years) and Pimlico (which is outdated and hosts racing only for brief meets in the spring and September).

Still, the horsemen in attendance for the Jan. 11 videoconference had no shortage of concerns. Chief among them was housing for stable workers.

Last week's report stated there would be no housing actually on the backstretch at Pimlico. It would be nearby, in a neighborhood widely considered to be dangerous.

The report also identified three top candidates for training centers (Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, Mitchell Farm in Aberdeen, and the former Bowie Race Track in Bowie), but none of them would include dormitories for workers.

Trainer Ferris Allen put it this way: “I think the [MTROA] needs to understand that a lot of our employees are on foot or on bicycles. They don't drive. They work on H-2B visas and things like that. So on-site housing is a very essential part of running our business.”

As for Pimlico, Foreman said, “Working with the city, the plan is to incorporate backstretch housing into the community, contiguous to the racetrack. But that's all going to be part of a much more complete and dynamic redeveloped area, and not what you see in that area right now. It is a unique concept, one that we think will work, and one that will have to be fleshed out as we go forward.”

Regarding the training centers, Cross said, “At this time there's no money for that. It's a $25- to $30-miliion cost. And the zoning is very questionable as to whether it would be allowed.”

David Richardson, the executive director of the MTHA, who was moderating questions as they came in during the video conference, added that, “I will say I'm getting inundated with texts and comments about the need for backstretch housing at the training facility. If there's any feedback from horsemen, it's how crucial [the housing] component is.”

Foreman and Cross both indicated the MTROA would take into account the horsemen's concerns about housing going forward.

Other questions from horsemen included wanting to know specifics about the Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan S. licensing deals, but the MTROA didn't disclose many specifics.

“I don't want to get into too many details on that, but essentially we would be paying an annual fee [in exchange for] full control over the Black-Eyed Susan, the Preakness, and we would have full control over all revenue streams,” Cross said. “They're going to donate Pimlico to this new operating authority. We're going to license the Preakness. That's the essence of the deal.”

Asked if there was any consideration given to pushing back the proposed construction by a few months so Pimlico could capitalize off the 150th running of the Preakness at Pimlico in 2025, Cross said that idea would be too costly in terms of money and time.

“At the end of the day, we decided to model after Belmont, which is closing for two years and then coming back. And that is going to allow us to complete the construction on a timely basis,” Cross said.

But even though the plan calls for Pimlico to reopen in 2027, no deadlines are etched in stone at this early stage of the project.

Foreman said that even if Pimlico wasn't completely renovated in time for a grand reopening in May 2027, he expected it would be “at least in [a] phase [of partial usage] that we would still be able to accommodate the Preakness.”

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