“Pimlico Plus” bill gets final House approval

The Maryland House of Delegates on Monday gave final approval to legislation to put the so-called “Pimlico Plus” plan into effect.

The approval, by a margin of 104-34, came during a lengthy session which marked the kickoff of the legislature’s sprint to the end of the session. The final day of the 2024 legislative session is scheduled for April 8.

The House’s final approval sends the bill, HB 1524, to the Senate, which must pass the bill in identical form prior to the conclusion of the session. The bill is expected to go through the Rules Committee and then the Budget and Taxation Committee before final approval of the full Senate.

If the Senate amends the legislation, the House could accede to the changes or seek a conference committee to iron out the differences. But the shortness of available time would make this latter approach challenging.

The legislation would authorize the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $400 million in bonds to support the reconstruction of Pimlico Race Course and the purchase of land for and construction of a new training center to support the continuation of year-round racing in Maryland.

It would also enable the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority to contract with a nonprofit organization to manage day-to-day racing in the state.

The bill would lead to a dramatic overhaul of Thoroughbred racing in Maryland. Laurel Park would cease to be a racetrack, and all flat racing, outside of limited racing conducted at Timonium or Fair Hill, would be concentrated at a newly renovated Pimlico.

In addition, the sport’s traditional configuration in Maryland – with racetracks owned and racing conducted by private, for-profit entities – would be changed. Instead, the state, through the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority (MTROA), would take ownership and management of racing facilities, an approach MTROA chairman Greg Cross has characterized as a “bet on ourselves strategy.”

Because the legislation and a series of agreements between horsemen and the current track owner, the Stronach Group, would have the effect of keeping the Preakness in Baltimore at a refurbished Pimlico, the bill has widespread support, including from Gov. Wes Moore (D).

But the approval came after a debate in which seven delegates spoke, five in opposition to the bill with one, Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s County) calling it “central planning.”

The bill, Morgan added, sends a message: “They might be struggling,” he said of his constituents. “But you know what? Horse racing is too big to fail in Maryland.”

The Pimlico Plus effort has run into unexpected headwinds because, among other changes to existing law, it would reduce the amount of slots-funded facilities funding available to harness tracks by several million dollars and instead repurpose that money to support debt service on the bonds. Harness horsemen, who say they were not consulted, believe those funds would be important to enabling Ocean Downs, the harness track in Berlin, MD, to host more days of live racing if and when Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington closes.

“Taking from one group of people in a very similar industry and giving to another just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said Del. Jason Buckel (R-Allegany County).

But Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard County), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and sponsor of the bill, noted that the legislation grew out of longstanding efforts to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, including the 2023 law that created the MTROA.

“Last session this body created the MTROA… and tasked it with taking a look at what to do with our failing facilities, racetrack facilities here in the state of Maryland, which for decades this body has been trying to come up with a solution,” she said. “This is what they came up with.”

And Del. Dalya Attar (D-Baltimore City) pointed to the importance of the Preakness to the city and state as a reason to support the bill.

The Preakness is “one of the most watched races horse races in the United States. And in fact, there were some people that said possibly in the world, and we have that here in Maryland,” Attar said. “That is something that’s here in Maryland, and let me tell you something: if we don’t do something about this to ensure it remains in Maryland, the owners can pick up and take it out of Maryland.”