The rhetoric surrounding the future of the Preakness Stakes has heated up in recent weeks. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh recently sent a scathing letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan regarding the Stronach Group’s attempts to move the race to Laurel Park. The owners of the track have maintained that they won’t be spending money to fix Pimlico.
Baltimore Development Corporation president and CEO Bill Cole has been one of the loudest voices fighting to keep the Preakness in Baltimore. He joined Glenn Clark Radio for a Q&A regarding the race’s future March 1.
PressBox: Is there really still a fight to be had regarding the future of the Preakness? It feels like it’s a fait accompli that the race will be moving to Laurel.
Bill Cole: I recognize that that’s what the Stronach company is trying to put out there, but it’s simply not true. There is a state law, first and foremost, that requires the Preakness Stakes to be run in Baltimore City. That law is on the books; it was done more than 20 years ago and it’s still on the books. So first and foremost they would have to change that state law and there’s no bill pending this legislative session to do that. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is … since they owned the race track at Pimlico and acquired most of the racing assets in Maryland, they have clearly and intentionally avoided putting any real money into Pimlico. The only reason they can move is if they change the law or if there’s an emergency or a natural disaster. None of that has occurred, so until that happens, until they change the law they must continue to run at Pimlico. Our goal is to convince them to start investing in Pimlico the way they’ve invested in Laurel and come back to the table and talk to us about a true redevelopment of the Pimlico site for the sole purpose of keeping the Preakness Stakes in the city.
PB: Is it fair to say that the track’s owners have purposely “tanked” Pimlico in hopes of moving the race?
BC: When you spend 90 percent of your money on one facility versus another, that’s pretty clear what your intent is. Two summers ago, we toured the Senate Budget & Tax Committee through Pimlico and I will never forget walking through one hallway and wallpaper had fallen off the wall. And rather than fix it, they just stuck a ladder under it so that the wallpaper wasn’t laying on the floor. If that’s not intentional, I don’t know what is. It’s been pretty clear that their lack of investment in Pimlico is intentional. And they’ve said it in the paper. They’re not hiding from the fact that they have made a corporate decision to invest their money in Laurel over Pimlico and we’re going to continue to fight that.
PB: The money you’re referring to, where does that money come from?
BC: They get a variety of sources of state tax dollars. Some of it is casino money, that is the RFIF — Racing Facilities Improvement Fund. And they get a significant amount of money annually from slots revenues to invest in racetracks in Maryland. Unfortunately for us, 85 to 90 percent of the dollars they’ve gotten from the state, they’ve invested in Laurel. There was never any requirement that the money be spent evenly between the two major tracks. So they have chosen to disproportionately fund one over another. That’s the first thing.
And then there is somewhere between 60 and 70 million dollars annually that taxpayers fund for horse racing purses. And that clearly benefits the Stronach companies because without those purse enhancements, very few trainers would want to continue to run in Maryland. We don’t want to impair horse racing in the state of Maryland. So we’re not in any way trying to threaten that purse money. But what we are saying is, Stronach companies — Canadian based company — is making a lot of money on the backs of the taxpayers of Maryland and we think that they should have to invest in Pimlico, too.
PB: If the track owners refuse to spend more money on Pimlico and the city or state aren’t putting up the money to fix it either, what really is the fight here? Does this all come down to the state enforcing this law?
BC: The state does hold the keys, particularly in the legislature. They would need to change the law in order to simply move [the Preakness] down to Laurel. They would have to get the legislature to approve that move. I’m testifying on legislation that creates a work group that brings the governor, the Stadium Authority, the Jockey Club and the presiding officers of the legislature and the city to the table to talk through how to implement the Maryland Stadium Authority concept plan for a redeveloped Pimlico site.
We went through this two-and-a-half year process with the Jockey Club to reimagine Pimlico. It came out where we certainly had hoped demonstrating that a new Pimlico was possible in order to keep the Preakness. Two weeks before we finished and released the report, the Jockey Club — the Stronach company’s Maryland entity — came out with an alternative plan that conveniently left out the oval. So we did all this week for two and a half years and they immediately scrapped the idea of having horse racing there.
The legislature absolutely holds the keys here. They can’t move without a change in that law and we think now is the time to press pause on all of this conversation about moving the Preakness to Laurel and bring everybody back to the table to have a conversation about how to implement the really fine work of the Stadium Authority. We believe there are ways of financing this that do not impair horse racing in Maryland or the Stronach company’s stated goal of having a super track at Laurel.
PB: It would appear as though this is an awkward situation for the state, as it has to choose between Laurel and Baltimore — both tracks in Maryland. But is the most compelling argument — one Mayor Pugh made in her letter– to the state that some of the economic impact for Maryland could be lost with a move to Laurel? And do we know how much that might be?
BC: If this race moves to Laurel, it becomes a D.C. event. They said it themselves. So the hotel rooms don’t stay in Baltimore. The impact of the restaurants, that doesn’t stay in Baltimore. That shifts down to inside the D.C. beltway.
We’re trying to do that right now. We just released the economic impact study for the Baltimore impact of the Preakness. It’s an easy count when you start looking at it. We have hotel rooms in Baltimore, several thousand that support the Preakness. You look down in Laurel, there’s not a lot — certainly no premium hotel rooms to support it. And the folks that they’re attracting for these races — they really want a suite experience, premium seating, high dollar tickets — aren’t going to stay at the Motel 6 or Red Roof Inn. Not for any good reasons at least. They’re just not. They’re going to be looking at a major brand and they’re going to be looking in the D.C. area. So we’re looking to figure out how many of those room nights Baltimore City loses.
For more from Cole, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox