by Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the November 2019 Equiery)
This year’s middle jewel of the Triple Crown was overshadowed by uncertainty as the fate of the Preakness Stakes and live racing at Pimlico Racetrack were in turmoil. From lawsuits between the City of Baltimore and track owners, The Stronach Group, to the Maryland Stadium Authority’s nearly $400 million Pimlico renovation proposal, at times it appeared that keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore was doomed.
But then, a small group representing the various interests in Pimlico, the Preakness Stakes and Maryland racing began a series of meetings to find a solution. The meetings lasted all summer with little information released to the press until October 5, when the City of Baltimore, The Stronach Group and Maryland Thoroughbred industry representatives announced a plan to renovate both Pimlico and Laurel Park to not only keep the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, but also create a year-round live racing track at Laurel.
Best of all, this plan would not rely on taxpayer money. All funds would come from existing soures within the industry and from the sale of bonds. The estimated cost for both facility renovations is around $375 million. Seems impossible right?
Over the next few months, The Equiery will be publishing a series of articles related to this new proposal for Pimlico and Laurel to help explain how the impossible is actually very much possible with strong leadership and legislative backing. This month, you will read about the proposal itself and hear feedback from various leaders within the Maryland racing industry. Future articles will be dedicated to Equiery reader feedback, interviews with racing historians as well as the legislative process required to bring this new proposal to life. We look forward to hearing your views on this subject through emailing email@example.com.
The solution makers at the table were William H. Cole, Alan M. Rifkin, and Alan M. Foreman. Cole, a former chief executive officer of the Baltimore Development Corp., represented the City of Baltimore while Rifkin, who is the attorney for the Maryland Jockey Club, represented its interests. Foreman is lead counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and represented the Maryland racing industry at these meetings.
Each represented a “player” with major ties to racing here in Maryland, and each presented the different views and different needs of the people and horses they represented. The task at hand was to find a way to meet the needs of everyone involved while moving Maryland racing into the future.
Foreman told the press that they had three main goals while meeting. First, “the Preakness has to stay at Pimlico.” Secondly, “year-round racing must happen in Maryland to sustain the industry and this can’t happen at both tracks.” Third, “There can’t be a nickel of state tax payer money used in anything we do. The money for this project must come from the industry to support the industry.”
The proposal was sent to Maryland’s Governor Hogan, Senate President Thomas Miller, Jr., and Speaker of the House of Delegates Adrienne Jones on October 4, the day before the proposal was released to the public.
Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, gave opening remarks at the press conference held on October 8 at Laurel Park where the stakeholders presented their proposal to the press, horsemen, racing fans and the general public. Keefe stressed that “keeping the status quo here in Maryland is not an option. We need to move forward,” and he added, “this proposal isn’t perfect but it’s the right direction.”
Later, Keefe told The Equiery that “there is no such thing as a perfect plan but this plan addresses all the needs as close to perfect as possible. To come up with a plan that works for everyone… it’s magical, and these guys did it.”
Foreman was next to speak and dove into the events that led to the proposal’s release, “This is real. This is serious. This industry will be set for at least the next 30 years if this proposal is passed.” He continued, “It’s not perfect but we think it’s fabulous.”
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman was asked to speak and told a story about how the very first Retired Racehorse Project Makeover was held at Pimlico. He concluded by saying that he supports the proposal and is now acting as a “cheerleader to help get this project passed into legislation.” Most of Laurel Park’s property falls within Anne Arundel County.
Rifkin went into the finer details of funding for the project before Cole spoke specifically on the plans for Pimlico and Laurel.
At one point, Gerry Brewster was asked to speak on behalf of the Maryland State Fair and Timonium track. He stated, “We are all optimistic about what you have all put together here.” Brewster also spoke about the renovations needed at Timonium to allow for the facility to accommodate horses and horseman during construction at Pimlico and Laurel.
The press conference concluded with a Questions & Answers session. Various horsemen and members of the Friends of Pimlico group all posed questions regarding the timeline of construction, preserving the history of the Preakness and welfare of the horses and horsemen who live and work at these tracks.
Yes, with this new proposal, Pimlico will remain the home of the Preakness Stakes. The Stronach Group has agreed to donate the track and surrounding properties to the City of Baltimore, which will then take control of construction and day-to-day operations of the facility. “The Stronach Group has had great plans in the past but nothing seems to really have happened,” Keefe told The Equiery. “This new plan takes control away from them and puts it in the hand of the City and State.”
Since City and State officials have already been extremely vocal about keeping the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, putting the track in their hands makes horsemen incredibly excited about the future. Foreman said at the press conference that “the donation of the Pimlico land to the City of Baltimore is critical to the future of the industry here in Maryland.”
The new Pimlico facility will not only be a racetrack but will house a permanent Preakness/Pimlico museum, multi-purpose athletic fields and multi-purpose event center. The City is creating a community center, not just a racetrack, by opening up the land around the track for development. “This plan makes Pimlico a bridge between communities in Baltimore and creates an engine for tourism,” Rifkin added.
The Stronach Group will lease the facility from the City to run the Preakness Meet and will be able to take control of the facility several weeks before opening day to prepare for the Preakness Meet. The Stronach Group does have the option to add a Fall meet at Pimlico should they wish to. Cole estimated that The Stronach Group would spend $8-10 million annually to hold the Preakness Meet.
The grandstand will be torn down and rebuilt following the more modern trend of seating areas versus actual ticketed seats. This will allow the seating in the grandstand, as well as along the track and infield, to change each year based on demand. “The seating is mobile so they can build in seating based on demand instead of permanent seats that must be filled each year,” explained Cole.
This new grandstand, referred to as the Clubhouse on the various renderings created by the architectural firm Populous, will be elevated so that spectators can see over the infield tents and view the whole track. Swing bridges will be made so that people can cross the tracks without disturbing their surfaces.
Although new stabling will be constructed, the famed “Derby Winner” stall of the Stakes Barn will be preserved and incorporated into the new barns, according to Foreman. The current plan is only to have enough stabling for those shipping in for the Preakness Meet and not have any year-round stabling at Pimlico.
In order to make all of these new designs fit, the actual dirt and turf tracks at Pimlico will be rotated about 30 degrees. Although some at the press conference expressed worries about the history of the track being lost due to the shifting, Rifkin commented, “Sometimes our history and legacy stand in the way of our future. Without shifting the track, this whole project fails.”
The new tracks will be slightly shorter than what is currently at Pimlico and Foreman pointed out that it is actually a good thing for the sport. The slightly tighter turns will mean the track will be banked, creating a safer surface for horses to run on.
Michael Harrison, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, agrees that the Pimlico plan is a step in the right direction. “Look. Would you rather lose Pimlico holding the Preakness or lose the [original] track but keep the Preakness in Baltimore?” he told The Equiery. “This deal could not have happened without shifting the track.”
Harrison went on to say, “It’s a great deal. A real win-win for everyone involved. Baltimore gets to keep the Preakness and Stronach gets the super track [at Laurel] they have always wanted.”
Stronach’s Super Track
The Stronach Group may be giving up the Pimlico property, but what they are getting in return is what they have been pushing for over the last few years–Maryland racing housed primarily at one location, Laurel Park. With this new proposal, Laurel will be turned into a year-round, live racing and training facility complete with three tracks, new barns, new dormitories and much more.
“Laurel will become the day-to-day operating facility,” said Rikfin, adding, “the athlete is the showcase of this sport and we need to think outside the box to create an environment that brings people into the facility.”
“The first thing we had to do was address the backstretch issues,” said Foreman. Keefe was happy about hearing this, confirming there is a “big problem with the barns [at Laurel].”
The current barns will be torn down or repurposed, and new better-ventilated state-of-the-art barns with 1,584 stalls will be built in a currently wooded 54-acre parcel of the property. This new “horsemen’s village” will also have a dormitory that can sleep over 300 backstretch workers. The area will have room for additional barns or dormitories if needed. There will also be a vet center located right next to the new Stakes Receiving Barn.
The clubhouse at Laurel will be getting a facelift with a portion to be used every day and another section for special events. The paddock and winner’s circle will be located inside the clubhouse so that spectators can view the horses being saddled from any point of the clubhouse. The new paddock will also be able to be viewed from the nearby rail station, according to Rifkin. “The goal is to create experiences that bring people into the track versus having them just stay at home and watch on the TV,” Rifkin stated.
The existing tracks at Laurel will be kept in place but a new all-weather Tapeta track will be placed in-between the current dirt and turf tracks. “Laurel will become the first track in the county to have all three surfaces,” Foreman noted. He also explained that a tunnel would be constructed under the tracks to get horses safely from the barns to the tracks and back.
“These new synthetic surfaces are looking like the best bet for the future with such drastic weather changes that we are now seeing,” Foreman told The Equiery. Foreman was part of the team that investigated the fatalities in New York during the winter of 2011-2012 and strongly believes that climate change is the cause of these deaths.
“Whenever there is a cluster of fatalities like we saw in New York, and then again at Santa Anita this past winter, we need to look for what has changed,” he said. “In New York, 2011-2012 was one of the most unusual winters they had seen with really cold nights and days that would warm up quickly. These changes affect the track surfaces.”
Foreman added, “This past winter at Santa Anita was one of the coldest and wettest winters ever. Their track [surface] wasn’t used to that sort of weather. The track surface was made for more arid weather.” These fatalities have led to a new group based in Kentucky tasked with studying the effects of climate change on various track surfaces. So far, it seems synthetic surfaces are the most reliable, though the official Kentucky study has not been completed.
In December of 2018, the Maryland Stadium Authority released a study estimating that it would take $424 million just to rebuild Pimlico. At the time, The Stronach Group stated that they fully supported the idea but were not going to invest any more money into that track. The players were tasked with how to save Pimlico and renovate Laurel all while “living within our means,” as Rifkin stated at the press conference. He added, “The real question being asked of the group was how much money do we have and how can we stretch that.”
With the new proposal, which eliminated most of the permanent seating at Pimlico and replacing it with temporary seating areas, Pimlico’s rebuilding plan is estimated at $199,547,000 while Laurel’s is estimated at $173,365,000. This brings the total proposed project for both tracks to $372,912,000, which is less than the original estimate for just Pimlico by the Maryland Stadium Authority’s study.
Knowing that funds for this project could not be taken from the tax payers and must be paid for by the industry itself, experts were brought in to look at current racing revenue and how to apply that to the new proposal. The new proposal draws funds from cash bonds and existing Capital Improvement Funds balances with the bonds payments coming from the current Racetrack Facility Renewal Account (RFRA).
The RFRA gets money from 1% of the State’s casino video lottery terminal revenue. Those funds are then divided into multiple segments. This proposal would use the Thoroughbred industry’s 80% share of the Racetrack Capital Improvement Funds, which is $8.5 million, while the City of Baltimore’s portion would be $3.5 million from the City Infrastructure Contribution and the horsemen would contribute $5 million from the Purse Dedication Account. This would allot $17 million annually to bond payments.
Bond Proceeds, based on the RFRA contribution, would account for $348 million of the project and would be managed through the Maryland Stadium Authority. The estimate Capital Improvement Funds cash balance of $27.5 million (as of March 31, 2021) would bring the total funding for the project to $375.5 million.
This new plan would need approval from the Maryland General Assembly to extend the life of the RFRA for the duration of the term of initial debt issuance. The proposal requests a 30-year extension.
Note: Reported here is a very simple breakdown of funds. For more specifics on the RFRA and Bond Proceeds proposal, see equiery.com.
The first step to get any of these projects off the ground is with the 2020 Maryland General Assembly legislative session that begins in January. The proposal will need to be drafted into legislation that then must be passed into law before any construction can begin. “Everything presented today is a plan that must be approved by the legislature,” Foreman explained at the press conference.
If approved, construction at Laurel will start first. “We will likely have to shift all live racing to Pimlico while the Laurel backstretch and new track are being built,” Cole said. This does mean that the horsemen at Laurel will be temporarily displaced. “The logistics still need to be worked out but we’ve already started working on these details,” Keefe told The Equiery.
“It will be challenging for the horsemen for sure, but we will be able to work it out,” Harrison added. “The end result will be worth it. We have the potential here to increase the overall industry in the state including breeding farms, training facilities… all of it.”
Keefe said MTHA has started looking into Timonium, Pimlico, Bowie and even Fair Hill as possible temporary sites for the Laurel horsemen. Rifkin, Foreman and Cole have already started talking with Gerry Brewster, president of the Maryland State Fair Board at Timonium. “We have nearly 600 stalls and a 5/8 mile track at Timonium,” Brewster told The Equiery, “and we have housed horses from Pimlico during renovations in 2001 and even early in 1992.”
Although Timonium seems the most likely location for the displaced horsemen, it too needs some renovating before it can accommodate horses year-round. “The first track on the property was in 1819 and the Fair has run races here for 140 years. Our infrastructure is crumbling with some pipes being over 100 years old!” Brewster said. He also pointed out that the current track at Timonium would need to be winterized to allow for year-round training.
Despite these challenges, Brewster said he is “cautiously optimistic” and “happy to hear that the group [who presented this proposal] has publically said they will support Timonium’s needs.”
The Maryland State Fair is an IRS Section 501(c)3 nonprofit and any changes to the facility will need to be approved by its board, but the board is “open to discussions,” according to Brewster.
Once Laurel is complete, the new Pimlico complex work will begin. Rifkin assured the public that even during construction, the Preakness will be held at Pimlico. “We might have to run a year with limited seating, but the Preakness will not be moved from Pimlico,” he said.
If approved, the project is projected to take three to four years for completion. When completed, the Preakness will stay at Pimlico and Maryland will be able to host year-round racing at Laurel. “This proposal is as much about community as it is about the Preakness,” Foreman told The Equiery. “We are needing to fix the industry as a whole, not just the Preakness.”
The Equiery wants to hear what your thoughts are on the new Pimlico/Laurel proposal. Are you in favor or against this new proposal? Do you think this proposal is the solution to the problems the Maryland racing industry is facing? How does this proposal affect you personally, if at all?
Voice your opinion by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, hometown and your involvement with the Maryland horse community.