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Commentary

Opinion: Consolidating Maryland Racing at Laurel Park Makes Sense

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It is very difficult to maintain a strong horse racing industry for owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, track owners, track employees and the Maryland businesses that support the racing industry. In addition, it is essential that the Maryland racing product is attractive to bettors across the world because the hard fact remains that horse racing would not exist if it were not for those who bet money on the sport.

The Stronach Group and its industry partners continue to improve the Maryland racing experience. The plan to close Pimlico and move the Preakness to Laurel Park is a necessity. Many who opposed this proposed move have one experience with Maryland racing – one day, at one track, sitting in a corporate tent, for one marquee race day.

Horse racing is a challenging business. Good luck finding a prospective buyer for the Maryland tracks.

Tracks are closing, racing days are decreasing, and it is a constant challenge to maintain a robust betting handle which ultimately keeps the money flowing through the racing industry supporting jobs, farms and tourism.

How many Marylanders know how many racing days Pimlico has? The answer is only 12. Pimlico draws big crowds only on the day of the Preakness and Black Eyed Susan Day. Two days of large crowds will not support the costs of the needed overhaul which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the daily maintenance expenses.

Unfortunately, Pimlico is an antiquated facility and is no longer an attractive venue for horse players. In the 1980s, Pimlico only allowed betting on live races. The only legal competition for the gambling dollar at that time was a limited Maryland lottery, visits to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, or local bingo halls. Today, the gambling market is saturated with simulcast betting on dozens of tracks right on your TV or phone, more lottery games, fantasy sports and six casinos in Maryland, and new legalized sports betting.

Race tracks can flourish.

Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar operate boutique racing meets which draw 10,000 or more fans on most race days. The continued improvements at Laurel Park will attract racing fans across the country throughout the year.

When the University of Kentucky hosts a home football game traditionally thousands of football fans also go the races at Keeneland that weekend. Just imagine if thousands of University of Maryland football fans headed out to Laurel Park to watch the game and enjoy a day at the races. Public officials and Maryland’s racing industry have an opportunity to create a world-class track at Laurel Park so that any day at Laurel Park will be as enjoyable as a day at any premier racetrack in the U.S.

Baltimore does not have to lose out if the Preakness moves to Laurel Park. Baltimore’s memories of the Orioles and Colts at Memorial Stadium live on today. In the 1990s, it made sense to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Stadium. Just ask any baseball or football fan.

The Preakness should move to Laurel Park and the Stronach Group should consider renaming it Pimlico at Laurel Park to keep the history of Pimlico alive. Bringing over some of the original signage and adding a museum room accessible to the fans would further ensure that Pimlico never dies in our hearts and minds. Baltimore could still remain the official host of Preakness Week. Baltimore’s hotels and restaurants would still thrive and benefit from a Preakness located at Laurel Park. Laurel Park is 20 miles from downtown Baltimore. Pimlico is nine miles from downtown Baltimore. Therefore, the analogy that has been tossed around by Baltimore civic leaders that losing the Preakness is akin to the Colts moving to Indianapolis is nothing but overblown hyperbole.

The time has come for Maryland horse racing to be re-energized.

Change is hard but often necessary. Laurel Park can become a destination for serious horse players, casual fans, and top jockeys and trainers from across the country. The current train stop at Laurel Park is an asset. It allows for fans from Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York to travel to the track.

A new Pimlico at Laurel Park would become the new home of the Preakness as well as possibly attracting other high profile races such as the Breeders’ Cup and reinstituting the Baltimore Washington International Turf Cup. In addition, creating a 21st-century training center at the historical Bowie Racetrack coupled with the world-class training facility at Fair Hill in Cecil County will elevate Maryland throughout the racing world.

Maryland has a great history of racing. The proposal to close Pimlico and move the Preakness to Laurel Park will ensure that Maryland racing stays strong.

We do not want to wake up one day and see that the Preakness has moved out of Maryland and the entire Maryland racing industry is diminished.

— Kevin O’Keeffe

The writer is a lobbyist and lawyer.