The following appeared in The Racing Biz January 5th and was written by Frank Vespe.
A pair of reports commissioned by the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority released Jan. 5 outline a very different future for Maryland racing. How precisely to get to that future? That’s a bit less clear.
That future portends a consolidation of racing operations at a rebuilt Pimlico Race Course, the creation of a training center to accommodate additional horses, and the replacement of the current private, for-profit ownership structure with a state-owned, non-profit-managed arrangement.
Governor Wes Moore announced Friday morning that the state of Maryland and the Stronach Group, the parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, had “reached the framework of an agreement in principle” to implement the projects, he said in a statement. Under the agreement, the Stronach Group would turn Pimlico over to the state, retain the right to develop the Laurel property, and maintain ownership of the Preakness itself, while leasing the rights to it to the new track operators.
The cost of leasing the Preakness is unknown. Control of day-to-day racing would transfer as of January 1, 2025.
The two reports were completed by a consultant team led by Crossroads Consulting and Populous. They were mandated by the legislation that created the Authority during the Maryland General Assembly’s 2023 session and synthesized by the Authority into a single report.
The facilities report outlines two potential Pimlico options and identifies three possible training center sites. The price tag for the new Maryland racing facilities is projected to reach approximately $400 million, with the Pimlico renovations projected to cost between $275 million and $285 million.
The rebuilding of Pimlico is expected to take three years, and during that time, the Preakness would be run at Laurel Park.
The facilities report outlines two options for Pimlico. Both would involve demolishing virtually every structure on the grounds and rebuilding from scratch. While one option would keep the racetrack in its current configuration, the other, which the report says “is the most efficient use of the available land while also resolving some of the key challenges of the Option 1 concept,” envisions rotating the track to allow for the creation of a grand entrance to the facility, better arrangement of structures on the grounds, and slightly more developable land.
The new Pimlico would be able to host approximately 71,000 people for the Preakness, including 16,200 in its new, 137,000 square foot clubhouse. The grounds would also house 560 stalls and two tracks, a turf course and a dirt course, with the latter to be “synthetic ready,” that is, ready to be quickly converted to a synthetic surface in the future.
Also on the grounds will be both surface parking and a parking garage, a hotel, and a veterinary center.
The report flags three potential training centers as its top choices. Those are the old Bowie Race Course site, the Rooney family’s Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, and Mitchell Farm Training Center in Aberdeen. All, according to the report, are within an hour of Pimlico and have a minimum of 85 acres available, which would allow stabling for 600+ horses.
While the future of Pimlico and the Preakness have largely taken center stage in the public mind, in some ways the operating model may be a more critical component.
“It is possible to have a financially viable operating model in Maryland, but thoughtful and strategic changes are needed,” the Crossroads-led report notes. “Revenues from all-sources wagering may not be adequate to enable a for-profit operator to run a sufficient number of race days and also make the necessary capital improvements.”
“Implementing a public ownership structure for the tracks which recognizes a substantial need for a public investment with the involvement of industry participants to leverage otherwise strong economic foundations is recommended for consideration,” the report suggests. “Further, it is recommended that consideration be given to leasing the tracks to a not-for-profit corporation similar to NYRA.”
“The Stronach Group and the Maryland Jockey Club remain deeply committed to reinvigorating Thoroughbred racing in Maryland, and this framework agreement represents an important first step in that process,” Stronach Group chairwoman Belinda Stronach said in a statement.
The report calls – perhaps quixotically – for the new operator to maintain a racing schedule of between 140 and 165 days, “emulate the strategies for successful boutique meets at other tracks,” increase purses 35% to draw even with Virginia, increase the number of starts by 15% to bring average field size to 8.5 runners per race, and increase breeding incentive funds by 15-20%.
The additional funding will almost certainly require increased subsidies from the state, and the report flags historical horse racing machines – essentially slot machines with the results based on earlier horse races – as one way to boost industry funding.
The plans are subject to approval by the General Assembly. The 2024 session kicks off January 10 and concludes April 8.