The architects of the proposal to put Maryland horse racing on firmer footing hailed their plan as an imperfect but “fabulous” blueprint that would put the industry in a position to thrive for decades. They also said it would keep the fabled Preakness Stakes — the lynchpin of Maryland racing — from leaving the state.
The comments by the group that hatched the proposal — in months of private talks — were their first public discussion of the plan since its disclosure in the media last weekend. They came during a briefing Tuesday for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA).
Three of the group’s four participants — Jockey Club attorney Alan M. Rifkin, MTHA general counsel Alan Foreman and former Baltimore Development Corporation CEO William H. Cole IV — walked the audience through their vision for modernizing Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park, and they took questions from the audience.
The core of their proposal involves redirecting some of the funds the industry already has at its disposal, including a sliver of the proceeds generated from Maryland casinos, to rebuild Pimlico into a “community use” space most of the year, while a sparkling new Laurel track would host the vast majority of daily events in Maryland.
“We will become the epicenter of racing in the United States,” Foreman said. “You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this happen.”
Rifkin, the lawyer who represents The Stronach Group, owner of the Jockey Club, which operates the two tracks, said the group had three non-negotiable pillars during its discussions: The Preakness had to remain in Baltimore. Daily racing had to be sustainable — meaning Stronach would only have to support one venue and not two. And the plan could not involve general fund revenue, which would be difficult, if not impossible, for the industry to win from the state legislature.
The group brought in Populous — the internationally-renowned Kansas City firm once known as HOK, architects of Oriole Park at Camden Yards — to come up with a plan Rifkin called “dynamic.”
“They have more experience than anyone else in sports facility design, architecture, cost and pricing,” he said. “And we asked them to… help in this very significant — and we think very meaningful — transformation of an industry, and give us the best of your ideas.”
The result, Rifkin said, reflects the new reality of in-person sports viewing in America, where people aren’t anchored to their seats for hours on end.
“Over the past decade or so what we’ve seen is that people want to be in social settings. They want to mill around. They want to be among others. They want to be in suites, not seats. They want to be in areas of interesting experience rather than seated like a plant.”
That’s why the reimagined Laurel and Pimlico have “smaller clubhouses [and] more intimate settings” in the renderings that HOK produced for the Maryland negotiators, which Rifkin, Cole and Foreman displayed on a screen for the horsemen’s association audience of about 100 on Tuesday.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), who comes from a long line of horse owners, told the crowd that he supports the new plan, in part because it keeps the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico.
“We’ll have 1,500 stalls [at Laurel]. There’ll be year-round racing. And I think we really sell what this sport does to the public in a horse-centric race track,” he said. “I’m really excited about that.”
While Rifkin — a former aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) and an Annapolis fixture for decades — sought to downplay any suggestion that it will be difficult to get the General Assembly to approve the changes needed to allow the racing plan to advance, Pittman and Foreman said it’s essential that supporters of the proposal make their voices heard.
“As simple as this sounds to us… there’s going to be opposition to this, I’m sure,” said Pittman. “We’re going to really show them how good this can be for the whole state.”
Said Foreman: “We have the General Assembly coming after our money. Delegates and Senators in the legislature look at our money and think that it ought to be used for something else. We’re facing that big-time in the coming session. By locking our money in for the next 30 years to support the bonds, we pretty much fend off the ability of those in Annapolis to come get to our money. … And then you get brand-new facilities.”
The group is recommending that the Maryland Stadium Authority be the “constructing and funding agent,” Rifkin said, because that “would ease a lot of conscience” of potentially skeptical lawmakers.
“It’s in their wheelhouse to issue bonds, oversee the construction, oversee the facilities and make sure that every dollar that goes in is a dollar that is accounted for before it goes out. That’s what they do and they’re the best in the business.”
Just as Rifkin, Cole and Forman were beginning their talk at Laurel Park, the Maryland Stadium Authority board was wrapping up its regular meeting Tuesday at the authority’s headquarters at Camden Yards in Baltimore. But even though the MSA is an integral part of the plan to revitalize the tracks, which anticipates the agency issuing almost $350 million in bonds, there was no discussion of it at the board meeting.
After the meeting, Thomas Kelso, the stadium authority board chairman, declined to comment.
The Maryland Stadium Authority will need enabling legislation from the General Assembly before it can issue bonds. MSA board members are unlikely to take any formal action on the race track plan unless asked to do so by a government agency or top-ranking government official.
Rifkin, Cole and Foreman urged those who make their livelihood in the horse industry to support the plan when it gets to Annapolis.
Rifkin apologized to those who felt slighted because they weren’t involved in drafting the plan, but he said conversations had to be kept to a small group.
“It’s the first time we have brought the warring factions of jurisdictions together,” he said. “What we are presenting to you are recommendations that we think are supportable, they’re smart, they deal with the world that we find ourselves in, and they use our own resources.”
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.