REPORT: Churchill Downs making Pimlico bid

The plan to keep the Preakness in Baltimore and revitalize Pimlico – and with it, the Maryland racing industry – has already hit a bit of a slowdown in the state Senate.

Now, the plot thickens further as The Baltimore Banner reports that Churchill Downs, Inc., owner of Churchill Downs racetrack, as well as Colonial Downs, Maryland’s Ocean Downs, and other properties, has made an “overture” to purchase Pimlico.

A source told the Banner that Churchill had been actively lobbying behind the scenes to kill HB 1524, the legislation that would put the so-called Pimlico Plus plan into motion. As owner of Ocean Downs, the harness track located near Ocean City, Churchill had previously made clear its opposition to a provision in HB 1524 that would repurpose more than $10 million originally intended for facilities improvements to the state’s other harness facility, Rosecroft Raceway, to support the Pimlico Plus project.

Were Rosecroft to close, harness horsemen say they have an agreement with Ocean Downs to increase the live racing schedule there to replace some of the Rosecroft days that would be lost. That would require improvements to the Ocean facility, including a paddock capable of handling colder weather, horsemen said.

“We will need the standardbred [racetrack facilities] matching funds to winterize our racing infrastructure,” Ocean Downs general manager Bobbi Jones told the House Ways and Means Committee March 19.

Little further is known, according to the report, including whether the offer is serious or merely an attempt to derail the legislation. Craig Fravel of the Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, said that the company is “not in any negotiation” with the publicly traded Churchill Downs Inc.

Churchill’s typical model is to own racetracks that are supported by on-site casinos, so the purchase of Pimlico seems a stretch. On the other hand, the company already owns the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, and the purchase of Pimlico would bring with it the Preakness and thus lock up the first two legs.

Were the company to complete such a purchase, it would likely give local horsemen heartburn. Churchill has owned and closed several racetracks around the country and would be expected to seek to reduce the number of live racing days in Maryland to maximize profits.

The pending legislation needs to pass both houses of the General Assembly by the close of the legislative session April 8. Though it sailed through the House of Delegates April 1, it has been referred to the Rules Committee in the Senate, with Senate President Bill Ferguson seemingly cool to the bill as currently drafted.

Read the report in The Baltimore Banner here.