For Pimlico-Laurel rebuild, “man in a hurry” might be key
Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin describes new Maryland governor Wes Moore as a “man in a hurry,” yet one who’ll take his time to figure out a complicated issue.
He may need to be both as he leans into efforts to untangle Maryland racing’s Gordian knot.
The 2020 Racing and Community Development Act put meat on the bones of a plan lauded by industry insiders as “our Triple Crown.” It was to turn Laurel Park into the center of a thriving industry, rebuild Pimlico as a venue worthy of its biggest event, and catapult Maryland racing into a brave new future.
As the Monkees put it, that was then, this is now.
Now, the project is behind schedule, and the projected cost may be hundreds of millions more than originally envisioned. Even those issues that once seemed settled remain up in the air.
That’s the backdrop as Maryland’s equine interests gear up for their annual Horse Industry Day this evening in Annapolis.
Three years from the passage of that 2020 law, there’s been nary a shovel in the ground, and resolution feels far away.
So far, in fact, that, though directed to do so, the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) declined to demolish Pimlico’s condemned old grandstand and, in a report to the General Assembly, explained its reasoning thusly: doing so, the MSA wrote, “would leave a false impression that the project is proceeding as planned.”
The challenges are many. Inflation, supply chain issues, and modifications to the project itself have significantly raised the projected cost. The state of the facilities at Laurel Park is much worse than originally understood. Rising interest rates have taken a bite out of the purchasing power of the available funds.
The “budget deficiency,” the MSA estimated in a Jan. 1 report, might be as high as $350 million – substantially equal to the $375 million in bonding authority the original law provided. It’s hard to imagine the legislature agreeing to double the budget.
Even if it were to do so, a passel of thorny questions still need answers. Among the most critical: who will own and operate the track(s) going forward, and under what structure?
So now what?
The economics of racing in Maryland no longer support two full-sized racetracks, with oversized grandstands, sizable stable areas, etc. within 20 miles of each other.
Laurel Park, with property of approximately 300 acres, is big enough to support a consolidated state racing industry; the much smaller footprint of Pimlico is not.
But Pimlico’s where the political energy lies. Closing it, and moving the Preakness away, a couple of years after the track’s salvation seemed at hand is likely to be a non-starter; hard to imagine that happening under a Senate president, Bill Ferguson, who’s from Baltimore City and a House Speaker, Adrienne Jones, who represents the surrounding county.
The General Assembly’s 2023 session runs to April 10, and while these are problems that perhaps don’t necessarily have to be resolved this session, pressure is mounting on the industry to figure them out. The aged Laurel and Pimlico facilities won’t last forever; nor will the General Assembly’s patience.
Which means a man in a hurry might be what the doctor ordered.