Md. officials seek to ensure Preakness returns to Pimlico

Legal changes, bond proposed to codify reconstruction deal

August 06, 2002|By Eric Siegel and Ken Murray | Eric Siegel and Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

With the prospective new owner planning to tear down and rebuild Pimlico Race Course, state racing commission officials and legislators are seeking ways to ensure that the Preakness returns to the landmark Northwest Baltimore track once the reconstruction is completed.

Louis J. Ulman, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said yesterday that the panel was "exploring legal avenues" surrounding Magna Entertainment Corp.'s proposed demolition and reconstruction of the track.

The Preakness - second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown - is run each May, preceded by a week of festivities throughout the city. It generates worldwide publicity for Baltimore, draws more than 100,000 fans and is responsible for millions of dollars in tourism spending.

Ulman cautioned that the issues involving Magna's plans are "very complex."

"I don't think there's been anything like this in the history of Maryland racing," he said. The "worst of all worlds" would be for Magna to tear Pimlico down and "decide it doesn't make sense to rebuild it."

Ulman said he wants to avoid the situation where Magna would run the Preakness at Laurel Park for a year, then move the race out of state because Pimlico wasn't rebuilt: "My greatest concern is to preserve the treasure we have that we call the Preakness. It's No. 1 on my priority list."

Under state law, the racing commission must approve the sale of Pimlico and Laurel to Magna and also must approve any transfer in racing dates from Pimlico to Laurel.

Among the options the commission is exploring, Ulman said, is requiring a bond to be posted to assure the reconstruction could be completed before any change in racing dates was approved.

Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he is confident that Pimlico would not permanently lose the Preakness.

"I know the racing commission is not going to allow that to take place," Rawlings said. "I'm sure there will be an ironclad commitment to keep the Preakness at Pimlico."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, another Northwest Baltimore Democrat, said she believes the General Assembly needs to codify any arrangement.

"I think we need to pass a bill to give us some confidence [that the move from Pimlico to Laurel] is temporary," said Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "You want to make sure that what goes down gets put back up."

Still, Hoffman said her major concern is not about whether the Preakness would return to Pimlico after it was moved but whether Pimlico's demolition and reconstruction would occur.

"I'm interested in their plans being more than just plans," she said.

Under state law, the Preakness can be transferred to another Maryland track "only as a result of a disaster or emergency."

"The razing of Pimlico would qualify as an emergency, which would allow the race to be moved to another in-state track," said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office. The Maryland Racing Commission would make that determination, he said.

But nothing in the law specifies that the race must return to Pimlico.

"My guess is the General Assembly didn't think about the idea that Pimlico would be torn down," said Kathryn Rowe, an assistant attorney general who advises the legislature.

The provision was passed 15 years ago, shortly after Pimlico was sold to the father of the track's principal owners, Joseph and Karin De Francis, amid concerns the race might be moved. Another provision adopted at the time gave the state the right of first refusal to buy the rights to the Preakness if the rights were put up for sale.

Under plans outlined over the weekend by Magna Chairman Frank Stronach, the Preakness would be run at Pimlico this spring, move to Laurel in 2004 and be back at a refurbished Pimlico in 2005.

Baltimore promotion and tourism officials said they could adjust to the timetable.

"We would continue to do a Preakness celebration in Baltimore. Preakness and Baltimore are synonymous," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltmore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "It would be extremely exciting to have the Preakness come back to the city in a state-of-the-art facility."

"You never want to lose the crowd and the economic benefit, but in the long run it would be good for Pimlico," said Nancy Hinds, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"Preakness is a major draw for the city," added Hinds, who said the race accounted for $24 million in spending in 2000, the last year for which estimates are available. "All indications say we're not going to lose it forever."

Meanwhile, Laurel officials said they would welcome the Preakness, even for just a year, saying the move could spur needed improvements to the track's grandstand and parking areas

"If it comes to Laurel, we're going to work with them," said Craig Moe, mayor of Laurel, which is next to the track in Prince George's County. "If there's any way we can help, we'll do what we can to make it one of the best events ever."

Sun staff writers Allison Klein, Rona Kobell and Laura Vozzella and research librarian Jean Packard contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.