Covering their bets

Our view: Legislation would give the state additional tools to keep the Preakness in Maryland and protect the public's investment in this valuable, historic event

April 09, 2009

By seeking sweeping powers to buy or seize Maryland's two thoroughbred horse tracks, the O'Malley administration is going the extra mile to protect the state's interest in the Preakness Stakes. The race, a Maryland tradition since 1873, is a big money-maker for the state. The eminent domain legislation proposed Wednesday by Gov. Martin O'Malley may not be necessary - and we hope it won't be - but it could give the state the ability to buy or pre-empt the sale of the Preakness.

Let's face it: Neither the governor nor legislative leaders want to be scrambling if bankruptcy proceedings involving the tracks' present owner would trump the state's legal right to acquire the sporting event, the second leg in racing's Triple Crown.

Taking care of this business in the closing week of the session is the prudent course of action. It averts any need or expense of a special session.

But risk remains because no one knows how the bankruptcy case involving Magna Entertainment Corp., the tracks' owner, will play out. Magna has filed for bankruptcy protection and put its track holdings - including Laurel and Pimlico - on the auction block. None of Magna's assets can be sold without bankruptcy court approval, and the right to run the Preakness is a valuable asset. But through eminent domain, Maryland could seize the tracks, the Maryland Jockey Club, which controls the Preakness, and all assets associated with them - and let the court and other parties fight to stop the state.

So far, a handful of suitors with varied interests and backgrounds have talked about bidding on the two tracks, along with the Bowie training center. Baltimore developer David Cordish, with plans for a slots parlor in Anne Arundel County, wants to buy the tracks, invest in them and keep the Preakness where it belongs, in Maryland. In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Cordish told WYPR midday host and Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks that he plans to announce soon his partnership with a prestigious racing interest. That's tantalizing. Another prospective bidder, Pikesville developer Carl Verstandig, says he too is in discussions with two racetrack operators who would manage the racks while he focused on developing excess land on the properties, according to The Sun.

The state's investment in the Preakness and the economic windfall it brings are reasons enough for the General Assembly to approve this legislation. The state learned a harsh lesson in 1984 when it acted a day late to stop the Baltimore Colts from leaving. The city exercised its eminent domain authority to reclaim the sports franchise, but a federal judge rejected it because it was filed a day after the team relocated to Indianapolis.

One lost sports legacy is enough.

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