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Upset with lack of progress, lawmakers propose new authority to spur improvements at horse tracks

The entrance to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A multiyear multi-million-dollar renovation of the race course and nearby neighborhood promised by legislation passed in 2020 has not yet begun. Photo by Jay Cannon/Capital News Service.

In an effort to spur stalled plans for improving the Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park tracks, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee is weighing extensive amendments to a routine bill to establish a new state authority with sweeping powers over Maryland horse racing.

Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), chair of Budget and Taxation, circulated a 10-page reprint of the bill to committee members Monday, but the panel did not have time to hear an explanation or fully discuss the amendments before an evening Senate floor session. The committee plans on taking the matter up again Tuesday.

“All I want right now is to … just get an initial look at the race track bill that’s before us and the amendments that have come in, which are significant from what it was,” Guzzone told the committee.

The original bill, Senate Bill 720, was a simple reauthorization extending the sunset date of the Maryland Horse Racing Act – laws governing horse racing in the state – by 10 years, until 2034. The departmental bill has remained in Budget and Taxation since Feb. 7, after being introduced and assigned there the day before.

The proposed nine-member board, to be called the Maryland Thoroughbred Operating Authority, would oversee a new Maryland Racing Operations Fund, which would include money transferred from the existing Racing and Community Development Facilities Fund that is intended for the track improvements.

The new fund eventually would also include proceeds from the sale of $375 million in bonds that were authorized in 2020 by the legislature for redeveloping the two tracks, but never sold.

The new Maryland Thoroughbred Operating Authority and fund would only exist for four years and one month, under the proposal.

Redevelopment costs have skyrocketed and plans for the tracks’ revitalization have deteriorated to the point that many now believe that only one of the two tracks can survive, and the primary focus has changed from Laurel Park to Pimlico, the more valuable home of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

Under one scenario, Laurel Park would close, but Pimlico alone is only large enough to house about 450 horse stalls and would require finding another site for a new training facility and track with room for an additional 1,150 horse stalls.

Complicating the matter — and perhaps the deal breaker — is a change in the federal tax code that would likely cost The Stronach Group, the Canada-based track owner operating here as the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), an estimated $40 million, if it were to accept state money directly for improvements at Laurel Park.

The proposed amendments come as the track redevelopment costs continue to increase, driven up by a combination of inflation, rising interest rates, supply chain issues and site redesigns. Little actual progress has been made in the last three years, outside of revisions to the original plans and note of the ever-rising costs, now estimated at nearly twice the $375 million originally approved.

Legislative leaders, administration officials and racing industry principals have worked quietly behind the scenes to develop the lengthy amendments in the final weeks of the 90-day meeting of the General Assembly, which adjourns next Monday, April 10, at midnight.

At the least, the change would relieve the Maryland Stadium Authority of the responsibility of overseeing the extraordinarily complicated redevelopment plans at Pimlico and Laurel Park, as the state attempts to jump start negotiations between the parties.
As part of the original legislation three years ago, Maryland Jockey Club was to convey the Bowie Race Course Training Center property to the City of Bowie by Dec. 31, 2023, and the city was to hold MJC harmless for any claims or risks. In turn, the city of Bowie was to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Bowie State University for use of some of the land.

The proposed amendments, however, would put off the land transfer for a year, until Dec. 31, 2024, and give the city $100,000 for an environmental assessment of the site after questions about possible problems were raised.

By Dec. 1, 2023, the new authority would have to report to the General Assembly on alternative thoroughbred training facilities in the state, including the Bowie Training Center.

A possibility mentioned earlier this year as an alternative site for a new training facility, track and more stalls is the old U.S. Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, an 857-acre parcel currently being leased by Anne Arundel County as parkland.

Under the legislation, the authority would consist of: one member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, one member of the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association; three others who have relevant industry, business or government experience, at least one of whom would have experience in real estate development or financial services. One of the five would serve as chair. The five unpaid members would be appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the Senate.

In addition, the authority would include the chair or executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, now charged with overseeing redevelopment of the tracks; the chair or executive director of the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO); a non-elected member nominated by the president of the Senate; and one non-elected member nominated by the speaker of the House of Delegates.

A majority of the members would not be able to have a direct interest in thoroughbred horse racing as owner, trainer or licensee.

The authority also would be able to hire an executive director and staff to run the day-to-day operations under the proposal.

The amended bill would also provide some stability to the state’s horse racing industry as a different deadline looms. On July 1, about a month and a half after the Preakness, a private agreement between Stronach/MJC and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is set to expire. Two officials have privately described the proposal as “in case of fire, break glass” legislation, in the event that MJC would shut down racing after July 1.

The extensive amendments were first discussed publicly Monday.

House of Delegates budget conferees agreed Friday with the Senate’s version of the spending plan to strip out all language restricting funds in the Maryland Stadium Authority budget for the improvements at both Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

The House, in an effort to light a fire under the interested parties, had made the release of $17 million for debt service on the sale of bonds for the improvements contingent upon having all agreements required to move forward at both sites to be signed by Sept. 30.

Three years after lawmakers first authorized $375 million in bonds for the revolving Racing and Community Development Financing Fund — $180 million to benefit Pimlico and $155 million to Laurel Park — plans were floated earlier this year as a way to break the stalemate that has paralyzed efforts to redevelop the tracks.


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Upset with lack of progress, lawmakers propose new authority to spur improvements at horse tracks