Racing saga

Our view: With yet another interested party in Maryland's horse tracks, the state should be vigilant in protecting its stake in the Preakness and racing

April 05, 2009

In less than a year, the prospect of saving Maryland's racing industry with an infusion of slots dollars has become something of a mirage. The owner of the state's biggest tracks is in bankruptcy court, the promise of robust gaming parlors is iffy and the future of the Preakness Stakes is fuzzy. And the latest interested buyer of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park wants to build shopping malls on their grassy environs and says he'll pay for the tracks - in cash.

After years of debate over legalizing slots in Maryland, voters overwhelmingly approved them (granted, the recession and the state's deep budget woes helped) and now the state's two thoroughbred tracks may be headed to the auction block, their fates determined by the highest bidder.

All this uncertainty convinces us that the thoroughbred tracks in Maryland need a patron in the broadest sense - a skilled executive who's committed to revamping the business here and preserving the Preakness Stakes here, a corporate owner with a genuine regard for Maryland's racing history and its stake in the second jewel in racing's Triple Crown.

The state's experience with an out-of-town owner has been dismal - Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian owner of Laurel and Pimlico, has filed for bankruptcy protection. But before either track gets paved over, the state should be ready to mobilize all players in the industry to protect this franchise.

At least two parties are interested in the tracks: David S. Cordish and his Cordish Cos., which hopes to build a slots parlor at Arundel Mills mall, and Pikesville developer Carl Verstandig, who told The Baltimore Sun's Hanah Cho last week that he would like to redevelop the tracks with shopping malls. A third group, Heritage Racing LCC, with undisclosed principals, was formed to keep the Preakness in Maryland.

The Maryland attorney general has alerted the Magna bankruptcy judge of the state's legal rights to the Preakness should the tracks be sold. But nothing is assured. That's why Gov. Martin O'Malley, his economic development chief and other state leaders should be preparing for all possibilities as this saga plays out. It's difficult to predict what the next turn will bring, but Maryland needs to keep its horse close to the rail to protect the public's investment.

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