Latest Version of Maryland Remake: Pimlico Sole Track under Non-Profit Control, with 1/ST Racing out of Daily Ops

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   This story is a deeper dive into the joint press release issued earlier Jan. 5 by The Stronach Group, the Maryland Jockey Club, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority.

The latest recommendation in a years-long attempt by multiple stakeholders to consolidate Maryland racing at a single, reimagined racetrack now calls for a project dubbed “Pimlico Plus,” with racing centered in Baltimore and supported by the construction of a new training facility elsewhere in the state, according to a report issued by the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority (MTROA) Jan. 5.

The ambitious remake of the sport's infrastructure in Maryland hinges upon legislative approval, although the report did come with the endorsement of Maryland's governor, Wes Moore.

Another key to the deal would require 1/ST Racing and Gaming, which owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, to transfer ownership of Pimlico to the state, and for 1/ST Racing to cede control of its day-to-day Thoroughbred operations to a to-be-created, non-profit entity as of Jan. 1, 2025.

The report stated that 1/ST Racing is amenable to “a framework for an agreement in principle” for those transfers to happen.

In addition, the state would negotiate a licensing agreement with 1/ST Racing to operate and promote the GI Preakness S. and the GI Black-Eyed Susan S., Maryland's two signature races.

Laurel Park would be maintained as “a transitional facility for live racing and training during the expected four-year construction and transition period,” the report stated.

The Washington Post reported that if all went according to plan, Pimlico would be shut down after this year's Preakness on May 18, with the 2025 and 2026 editions of the race temporarily shifting to Laurel.

After that, the MTROA report stated, Laurel will likely be redeveloped.

Complementing the rebuilt Pimlico's projected 700-horse stabling capacity would be the construction of a new training facility at a to-be-determined location that can house 650 horses “in reasonable proximity to Pimlico that would also be acquired and developed under a non-private ownership structure,” the report stated.

The report stated that the cost for the entire project would be “significantly below” previous concepts proposed in recent years that involved keeping both Pimlico and Laurel running “and within the range of General Assembly allocations.”

A story in the Baltimore Banner gave a more specific breakdown: “The new Pimlico comes with a price tag of $274 million to $284 million, while the training facility would cost about $113 million–in line with $400 million in state subsidies previously set aside for the renovation of Pimlico and Laurel.”

The concept of consolidation in Maryland has been openly discussed for the better part of a decade. 1/ST Racing (known as The Stronach Group when it took over in Maryland in 2002) has been on the record for years as acknowledging the sub-optimal conditions at outmoded Pimlico, which as recently as 2018 raced only 12 dates for an abbreviated meet surrounding the Preakness.

Initially, The Stronach Group invested tens of millions of dollars in upgrades at Laurel while publicly stating that the company did not foresee putting any of its own funds into an overhaul of Pimlico.

Civic and state officials, fearful of Baltimore losing the Preakness to Laurel, helped to push for the years-long commissioning of several years of studies for a publicly funded solution led by the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA). In 2019, Baltimore's mayor even tried to sue Pimlico's ownership in an attempt to force a city takeover.

As the MTROA report explained, “After many iterations, an agreed-upon program was finalized in late 2021 and estimates were generated. The estimates were significantly over the available bonding capacity for the project.”

The Maryland General Assembly then called for additional input and yet more studies in 2022, and that year, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA), the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, and others proposed an alternative scenario that would maintain year-round training and racing at both facilities.

“In total, six scenarios have been analyzed by the MSA [and] all of them significantly exceeded available project funding,” the MTROA report stated. It also concluded that “given the level of State investment required to rehabilitate and sustain the industry, a public ownership structure for the tracks and subsequent lease of them to a nonprofit entity led by Maryland industry professionals is the best path forward.”

The report stated at least one significant reason why 1/ST Racing would agree to give up Pimlico: The company would be on the hook for huge taxes if the state provided any funding for the rehab of a privately owned track.

“An additional issue complicates any public investment at either Pimlico or Laurel Park under the current ownership structure,” the report stated. “Under Section 118 of the Federal Tax Code, expenditures made by a government unit to construct improvements at a facility owned by a for-profit entity will constitute taxable income to that entity. Tax advisors have concluded that MSA expenditures at either racetrack may be treated as taxable income to any private owner.”

Belinda Stronach, the chairwoman, chief executive and president of The Stronach Group, stated in a press release that “The Stronach Group and [its subsidiary] the Maryland Jockey Club remain deeply committed to reinvigorating Thoroughbred racing in Maryland, and this framework agreement represents an important first step in that process.”

MTHA president Tim Keefe echoed those sentiments in a separate press release that stated “The Maryland racing industry is one of the most storied in the nation and [Friday's] announcement is an important step forward for a sustainable and bright future.”

TDN had follow-up questions for Keefe about the horsemen's perspective on the project, but a voicemail message left for him did not yield a return call prior to deadline for this story.

However, the MTHA press release did state that a “town hall” webinar for members to discuss and ask questions about the project would be scheduled for the near future.

So what might the reimagined Pimlico look like? The MTROA report outlined the following basic concepts for what would be one of the nation's few remaining tracks nestled within an urban neighborhood.

A new Pimlico would be a “best-in-class facility” featuring both a “right-sized” grandstand and clubhouse “with overlays that could be activated for the Preakness and other large events,” the report stated.

The report also envisioned the creation of a 1,000-seat event space, development parcels, a hotel built by a private partner, and “state-of-the-art equine diagnostic health facility with space for veterinary services.”

Housing for backstretch workers would not be in the stable area, but instead “constructed in the Park Heights community” near Pimlico.

Two parking facilities would be constructed. One would be part of the hotel. A second garage could be shared by both racetrack patrons and patients and staff at Sinai Hospital, which is adjacent to Pimlico.

As for the new training facility, the report stated that MTROA identified eight potential locations within a 50-mile radius of Pimlico to be examined for suitability.

Ranked on a scoring mechanism that evaluated nine criteria, the top three were Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, Mitchell Farm in Aberdeen, and the former Bowie Race Track in Bowie that last hosted racing in 1985 but had functioned as a training facility until 2015.

The report stated that “it is the recommendation and conclusion of the [MTROA] that those three locations move to a next stage for final consideration and subsequent acquisition. The [MTROA], however, will continue to evaluate and consider additional suitable properties if and when they become known.”

A footnote within the report disclosed that during the investigation of possible sites, “the [MTROA] learned through industry sources that Shamrock Farm, which is currently owned by the family of [MTROA] Authority member [and National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and chief executive] Tom Rooney, may be for sale. Those members leading the search reached out to Mr. Rooney about its availability, and he confirmed that a sale may be possible.”

With regard to the fundamental change of the state's operating model for racing, the report stated that it is seeking a system that “mirrors that in use by the New York Racing Association. Facilities would be owned by the State and leased to a professional not-for-profit operator. This structure will better align operations with the needs of the horse racing industry and the State's significant financial investments.”

The MTROA, the report stated, would be in charge of coming up with a recommended operator.

The MTROA has been meeting regularly since first convening in August 2023, while also conducting research and receiving testimony from a wide variety of stakeholders. It was created to meet twin objectives mandated by legislation: Reimagining the state's horse racing infrastructure to better align with budget realities, and conducting a review of Maryland horse racing operations in order to recommend the best path forward.

The MTROA is composed of appointees of the governor and legislative leaders and representatives of horse industry organizations, plus the MSA, the Maryland Economic Development Corporation, and others who have a stake in the areas surrounding Pimlico, Laurel, and Bowie.

The report that came out Friday was required by the General Assembly to be issued by that date.

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