On The Future of Maryland Racing, A Q & A With Corey Johnsen

Corey Johnsen | Keeneland


With the 2024 GI Preakness S. now in the past, Maryland racing is ready to move toward a future that will include a new Pimlico and a new administration operating the track. Legislation was passed earlier this year that will allow the track's current owners, 1/ST Racing, to turn over Pimlico to the state of Maryland on July 1 and Laurel on Jan. 1. Five months after the Pimlico transfer, on Jan. 1, 2025, a new non-profit operating company, the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority (MTROA), will take over the governance of both Pimlico and Laurel. When it's all said and done, there will be a new Pimlico, a new training center and racing will cease to exist at Laurel.

Veteran racetrack executive Corey Johnsen, who enjoyed successful stints at Lone Star Park and Kentucky Downs, has signed on as the interim CEO of the MTROA and will be spearheading the effort to create what many feel will be a new and improved Maryland racing industry.

Johnsen sat down with the TDN to discuss his role and his vision for Maryland racing.

TDN: What will be the structure of the MTROA and what is your role?

CJ: I'm the interim CEO of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority or the MTROA. I came on board around Apr. 1 and have a one-year agreement. If necessary, I will stay around as long as the Board of Directors wants me to. The governing body will be the MTROA. There will be a board of directors and they will form a non-profit horse industry group much like you see at NYRA, Keeneland and Del Mar. It will take the form of something along those lines. They will be the operating entity as of Jan. 1, 2025 for racing at Pimlico and Laurel.

TDN: What prompted you agree to take this job?

CJ:  Horse racing has been really good to me and my family. I love the sport. I love the participants in the sport. This gives me an opportunity to give back to Thoroughbred racing. That was my sole motivation. The last five years, I have been busy with our racing and breeding interests with CJ Thoroughbreds. We also have a non-profit public charity called Hope 4 All. We're in the middle of a lot of exciting projects with that.

TDN: What are the time frames so far as when Pimlico will be torn down and when will it re-open. And where will the Preakness be run during the transition?

CJ: We are in the process of having a number of meetings. We anticipate demolition to begin sometime this year. It will include most of the stable area and the condemned part of the grandstand. Three barns, the Preakness barn and the existing major piece of the grandstand will remain for the 150th running of the Preakness. It's very important that we will hold the race at Pimlico. As soon as that's over, then the entire site will be demolished and rebuilt. The 2026 Preakness will be at Laurel as well as regular racing. The goal is to have the Preakness back at Pimlico in 2027.

TDN: One of your biggest accomplishments in the sport was introducing Historical Horse Racing Machines to Kentucky Downs, which led to the Kentucky tracks offering astronomical purses. Do you see the Maryland tracks getting HHR machines?

CJ: My role involves the racing part of it and not the legislative and regulatory affairs part of it. So I'm not the most educated person to answer that question. We're moving forward with no plans for HHR machines. We want Maryland racing to be able to stand on its own. That's our goal as we move forward.

TDN: Do you anticipate making a lot of personnel changes?

CJ: The Stronach Group has been very helpful in the transition. (Acting President of the Maryland Jockey Club) Mike Rogers is a long-time friend of mine and Mike and his team do a very good job of operating racing in Maryland. This is a really competent, hard-working team that takes pride in what they do. There is a really good core group of people that are operating the Maryland Jockey Club. Any staffing decisions would involve just a handful of people and that's yet be determined. We have so much on our plate right now, everything from dotting the i's and crossing the t's with some of the closing documents to working with architects and working with the Maryland Stadium Authority on demolition and construction schedules and working with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. There is a lot going on right now. The staffing piece of it will be further down the road.

TDN: In many areas of the business, there is a consensus that Maryland racing would be better off with fewer racing dates. Where do things stand on that issue and what might a future racing schedule look like?

CJ: We have a very good relationship with the horsemen here. I'm trying to be a good listener. I think they would tell you there needs to be some reduction in dates. The other part of that is to have a thriving breeding industry and there does need to be a year-round place to train. What that ultimately will look like is hard to tell. It's balancing the profitability of the racing operation with the needs of the breeding industry. The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association is well aware of the financial situation. We've also had great conversations with the Maryland breeders. There's going to be a balancing act and I believe that going forward there will be fewer racing dates compared to what will be offered in 2024. How much? It's really hard to say now. I think those decisions will be made in September and October. I am really impressed with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and their willingness to communicate and to be team players and work with all aspects of racing and breeding in Maryland.

TDN: One possible solution to the dates issue could be joining forces with another track, say Delaware Park, to form a circuit. What are your thoughts on that?

CJ: There have been some discussions on that and they are on-going. It's a little bit early as we move towards the final closing on this deal. Whether we shut down in June, July or August, there are two things that are very important. We will have to make sure that the average purse size is at a certain level. The second one is to make sure the turf course rejuvenates. Those are two major issues there that everybody needs to analyze.

TDN: 1/ST Racing is apparently going to retain the rights to the Preakness for a few years. Can you fill us in on those details?

CJ: The Stronach Group will present the Preakness in 2025 and 2026 and our organization will be a support group to that effort, somewhat similar to what happens with the Breeders' Cup. Beginning in 2027, our group will have the entire responsibility for the Preakness.

TDN: Because Pimlico is not large enough to contain the entire population of Maryland horses and because Laurel will be closed, opening a new training center is a must. Where do things stands with that?

CJ: It's now moving forward. There are things to deal with like water and sewer lines, land costs and land availability. We need to make sure we have enough land to provide the green space for our horses and we need to make sure we have housing for the stable area workers. It's complicated. I would imagine within the next few months an announcement will be made. One other thing we need to recognize is that we have a wonderful facility in Fair Hill. How that will fit in, I'm not sure. I would be hopeful that we could utilize it in some way that will improve racing in Maryland.

TDN: For the first time in a long time, it looks like the future is bright for the Maryland racing industry. Surely, you agree.

CJ: There's a lot of blue sky ahead. We have $400 million to revitalize the industry. There is a great spirit of cooperation and there is a lot of communication. That's the reason I accepted this position. This is a game-changer for Maryland racing. The citizens of Maryland want this to be successful. They want Pimlico to be rebuilt. They want the Preakness to be great again. We're here to fulfill that promise. We have a charismatic leader in Governor Wes Moore and he's been very clear that he wants this to benefit the citizens of Maryland, he wants it to benefit Baltimore, he wants it to benefit the Park Heights neighborhood and he want it to benefit the horse industry. That's our task, to make that happen.

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