Stabling, training may end at Pimlico, consolidate at Laurel
The six-month agreement hammered out by the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and Maryland Horse Breeders Association will keep racing going in the Free State through the end of 2023.
It could also lead to the closure of Pimlico for training and stabling, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Racing Biz. Pimlico may be the future for Maryland racing, but it appears Laurel’s the present.
The agreement is subject to the approval of the Maryland Racing Commission, which had not reviewed it prior to Tuesday’s meeting and did not approve it at that time.
Tim Keefe, a Laurel Park-based trainer who is president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA), confirmed that the accord could lead to the potential end – for the time being, at any rate – of training and stabling at Old Hilltop.
“It’s cost savings, quite frankly,” Keefe said of the decision. “It’s very costly just to keep the track open for training. They’re merely doing it as a cost savings, and I don’t have a problem with that.”
The closure of Pimlico is one of three major provisions in the agreement and comes with conditions. One condition is that Laurel have enough stabling to accommodate the additional horses, with the agreement calling for the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) to obtain “proper governmental approvals for horses to be stabled at Tent Barns 1, 2 and 3.”
In addition, the agreement calls for the dormitories at Pimlico to remain open “unless and until the MTHA and MJC have agreed and implemented a suitable plan for alternative housing” for affected backstretch workers. The costs of any such “suitable plan” are to be borne equally by the parties to the agreement.
“We’re going to do everything we can to accommodate everybody who’s living there,” Keefe said. “We’re cognizant of that and trying to work through that, as well.”
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If those conditions are met, according to the agreement, “[T]he MJC shall have the right to consolidate all stabling and training at Laurel Park.”
Keefe said that the parties are considering holding a brief meet at Pimlico later this year, perhaps following the seven-day Timonium stand, which concludes on Labor Day. Assuming the other conditions are met, he said the track’s closure would probably occur after that meet is concluded.
Though the optics of the move may seem askew, it is not expected to alter what appears to be the emerging vision of the future for Maryland racing. In recent months, stakeholders have largely coalesced around the idea that the economics of the sport no longer support operating two full racetracks within 20 or so miles of each other and that the industry must consolidate all or most operations at one facility.
Pimlico by itself is not large enough to accommodate the industry’s stabling needs, but the political momentum is behind Pimlico as the surviving track. In the days prior to the Preakness, 1/ST Racing CEO Aidan Butler – 1/ST is the MJC’s parent company – told The Baltimore Banner that he wanted the company to put its energy towards rebuilding Pimlico, rather than Laurel Park. And sources involved in the discussions have told The Racing Biz that political leadership in Annapolis has been clear that the Preakness must remain in Baltimore.
“At a time when we are trying to save some money and cut costs, it doesn’t make sense to keep Pimlico open,” Keefe said. “I’m supportive of them closing Pimlico [for training]. I just think it’s an expense that shouldn’t be borne right now, especially knowing everything we’re going through, and there’s plenty of space, or will be plenty of space, at Laurel.”
The agreement also calls for Maryland’s horsemen and breeders to pay 1/ST Racing a total $2 million divided into six monthly installments. That money, according to the agreement, is “to support expenses for racing and operations by the MJC.” It is in addition to a 3% shift towards the MJC in the allocation of the parimutuel handle, which was part of the original 10-year agreement between the parties that expired at the end of 2022.
The horsemen and breeders had also paid $2 million to defray the MJC’s losses in the about-to-expire agreement.
“That’s consistent with what we have paid them in the past,” said Maryland Horse Breeders Association president Kent Murray. “I don’t think we should be paying them to race, but there is precedent for that. So that’s what we’re going to continue for now.”
The agreement also directs both the purse account and the Maryland Bred Fund to “always remain current monthly.” While the state Racing Commission oversees the Bred Fund – and has authority over the purse account, according to state legal opinions – it has traditionally been hands-off towards the purse account, which sources have said has at times been underfunded.
Maryland Racing Commission chairman Michael Algeo declined to comment on the agreement. Maryland Jockey Club acting president Mike Rogers told the Commission Tuesday he “was not at liberty to talk about the details” of the agreement.
In a release, the MJC said, “The racing industry is looking forward to continuing to work with state officials and elected leaders to discuss long-term operating models and plans for new racing and training facilities.”
The company declined further comment.
The accord comes at a tumultuous time for Maryland’s Thoroughbred industry. Legislation passed in the most recent General Assembly session creates a Racetrack Operating Authority, whose members are expected to be named by July 1. That Authority will have the ability to – as its name suggests – operate racetracks and training facilities.
The Authority’s enabling legislation directs it by December 1 to provide the state legislature a report comprising a “a review of best practices for thoroughbred industry operating models” and recommendations on what model would work best for Maryland. That report could – and some industry insiders hope it will – point to a very different approach to racing in the state.
At the same time, 1/ST Racing has indicated a willingness to reduce its racing footprint in the state. And, with delays, inflation, and supply chain issues, it has become clear that the rebuilds of Pimlico and Laurel envisioned in the 2020 Racing and Community Development Act are infeasible with the available funding.
All of which leaves the industry at something of a crossroads. While the agreement announced Tuesday solves none of those problems, it does create time and space for the industry to work through them while also continuing to race.
“We needed it so that the state can get the Racing Authority in place,” Murray said. “It allows racing to continue while that work is being done, which I think is good for the horsemen.”