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Government & Politics

Race Track Improvement Push Fails

Maryland Governor’s Office photo

An effort to use state funds to modernize two of Maryland’s race tracks — privately owned venues in Baltimore and Laurel — died on the final day of the legislative session when lawmakers couldn’t reconcile differing approaches on how to proceed.

Lawmakers pledged to continue conversations about the future of horse racing in Maryland after the General Assembly adjourns.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) called the bill’s demise “a major disappointment.”

The Senate on Friday advanced a measure allowing the state to float bonds to improve Laurel Race Course and the Bowie Training Center. Those bonds would have been repaid using some of the slot machine proceeds that flow into the state’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account.

The funds would have to be matched by The Stronach Group, the Canadian firm that owns the two sites and Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

Baltimore’s House delegation rejected the complex plan unanimously over the weekend, a move that probably doomed the bill’s already-shaky prospects.

“We have a good solution that the Senate passed unanimously,” Miller said. “But the House, it’s just too late for them to grasp it.”

The Senate’s proposal required Stronach to make progress on the redevelopment of the Pimlico site before any funds for Laurel or Bowie would be released.

“It requires Stronach to sit down at the table before anything moves forward and requires something positive to happen to Pimlico before anything happens,” Miller said.

“We’re going to kick the can down for another year. Something has to be resolved. We’d love to see Pimlico stay in Baltimore. It’s very important for the history. But the issue is 12 days of racing in Pimlico versus year-round racing at Laurel.”

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), the architect of the Senate plan, expressed optimism that lawmakers, the firm and the city would continue their conversations after the legislature adjourns.

“It’s complex. It’s 16 years in the waiting. We have a private company that has ownership of a major asset that is deeply imbedded in the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore, but there are not very many leverage points.”

Efforts to fund racetrack improvements using slot machine proceeds were dealt a blow early in the session when two Anne Arundel lawmakers introduced a bill to improve the Laurel and Bowie sites.

That stoked fears that Stronach, which also owns the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, intends to decamp for Laurel.

The 144th running of the Preakness takes place next month. The event draws huge crowds and a nationwide television audience that showcases the history and culture of the city and state.

While the event is steeped in history, Pimlico, like Laurel, needs upgrades.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), whose district includes the track, said the early-session measure to help the Anne Arundel and Prince George’s facilities, but not Pimlico, “was so unusual. … We have shared interests.”

“I certainly hope that The Stronach Group is open to conversation because we have a problem to solve. We have an extraordinary opportunity to redevelop the Pimlico community, with benefits for the immediate area and beyond,” Rosenberg said.

William Hecht, a Stronach executive, noted the city has had more than three years to propose a plan and funding source to redevelop Pimlico.

“Instead, the city has derailed constructive efforts at the state level to provide a funding source intended for the betterment of the entire Maryland racing industry in favor of an ill-advised lawsuit attempting to improperly take over our business enterprise. As we’ve said before, the status quo isn’t viable, and a lawsuit isn’t a strategy,” Hecht said.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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