Angelos ready to help keep Preakness

Wealthy owner of Orioles seen as possible investor

March 20, 2009|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com and gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos said yesterday that he or his family are poised to help Maryland keep the Preakness Stakes, a storied horse race whose fate has been imperiled by its owner's recent bankruptcy.

The wealthy Baltimore lawyer met last evening with Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller at the State House. They said they discussed concerns that a buyer could move the Preakness out of state and the possibility of Angelos stepping forward as an investor.

"This is not an effort to gain a proprietary interest. I'm just giving my support," Angelos said after the meeting. "On the other hand, if my involvement or my family's involvement in such a proprietary interest is a necessary component of keeping the Preakness in Maryland, that's also available."

The fate of the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, has become a source of anxiety in Annapolis since the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the rights to the lucrative spring race.

O'Malley's involvement signals a high-level effort by state officials to save the Preakness. The race is the single largest annual sporting event in Maryland, an economic boon to Baltimore and a powerful symbol of racing's history in the state.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said, "The governor is interested in working with the leadership of the General Assembly to keep the Preakness in Maryland."

Maryland law gives the state the first option to buy the Preakness if it is offered for sale. In such a case, the state would have to match any accepted offer.

An avid owner of thoroughbred horses for decades, Peter Angelos bought the 237-acre Ross Valley Farm, near Hereford in Baltimore County, in 1998 to expand his horse-racing enterprise. In 2005, the Angelos family tried to broker a deal to buy Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County. The transaction fell apart when prospects for legalizing slot machines at tracks dimmed.

The General Assembly didn't pass slots legislation until 2007, sending the issue to voters who ratified the idea in November 2008.

Angelos' son, Louis, donated $100,000 to the campaign to approve slots and had considered bidding for a slots license, but didn't. Louis Angelos is a lawyer in his father's firm. Peter Angelos is prohibited from having a direct ownership stake in a gambling enterprise under Major League Baseball rules.

"I'm an interested citizen that wants to see that the Preakness retained in Maryland because it is a fundamental element to the history of the state," said Angelos, who has donated millions to federal and state candidates and committees in recent years, including to O'Malley. "It relates to horse racing and horse breeding, which has been part of Maryland since Colonial days."

The Preakness is also a money-maker - so profitable that it supports Maryland's thoroughbred industry for the rest of the year.

Pimlico's earnings shot up from $1.36 million in 2006 to $1.8 million in 2007 almost entirely on the financial draw of the Preakness.

Miller, a longtime supporter of the racing industry, said the group also discussed the potential pitfalls and complications of Magna's situation during the meeting. He cautioned that talks are in preliminary stages.

"It's mired in bankruptcy, and there are bankruptcy lawyers everywhere," Miller said. "It's in total flux."

He has suggested that, as a last resort, the state consider building a thoroughbred course and running the race, and he floated the idea of an emergency session of the General Assembly if legislation is needed .

Other potential investors might be interested in buying the tracks or the Preakness, Miller said. He said Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman, and Joseph De Francis, the former owner of the Maryland Jockey Club who sold his controlling interest to Magna, could remain involved.

He also said that Penn National Gaming, which recently bid for a license to build a slots parlor in Cecil County, and the Cordish Cos., a Baltimore-based developer, could be potential suitors. "A lot of names are being floated around," Miller said.

Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, the Magna subsidiary that owns and operates the Pimlico and Laurel tracks, said last night that it welcomes "all efforts" to keep the Preakness in Maryland but declined to say whether it had been in contact with Angelos or state officials about the race's future.

"The historic Maryland Jockey Club has been a part of Maryland culture since 1743," Chuckas said. "We believe it belongs in the state of Maryland."

The Jockey Club had hoped to salvage the financially ailing tracks by putting slots at Laurel Park. But Laurel's bid for a slots license was disqualified last month because it failed to pay $28.5 million in license fees. A competing proposal by Cordish to erect a 4,750-machine slots casino at nearby Arundel Mills mall appears far more likely to be approved.

Joseph Weinberg, a managing partner with the Cordish Cos., said last night that the Baltimore developer was likewise "interested in preserving the Preakness and racing in the state of Maryland" but declined to comment further.

DeFrancis could not be reached for comment. He recently said that he planned to study the issue but that it was too early to say whether he might be interesting in purchasing any of Magna's assets.

Some industry experts also have suggested that Kentucky Derby owner Churchill Downs Inc. might make sense as a buyer of Maryland's tracks.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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