Audrey Murray, who runs Murmur Farm in Harford County, said ever since the state legalized slot machines and began channeling some of those proceeds into purses, horse breeders, trainers and others whose jobs depend on thoroughbred racing have seen a gradual turnaround.
“It was a big, big boost for the horse industry,” she said. “It is on the upswing.”
As Maryland prepares to host the 144th running of the Preakness Stakes, the crowds that gather at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore can at least cheer the relative health of the state’s horse farms.
But Saturday’s Preakness, one of the jewels of the Triple Crown, also comes as one of the country’s oldest sports faces serious threats to its survival. The deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita Park in California in recent months have renewed calls for reform, including banning the use of whips and certain medications used on race horses. Even the Kentucky Derby’s wild finish — after the apparent winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference — had people talking about horse racing for all the wrong reasons.
And although Maryland’s horse farms are on an upward trajectory again, an increasingly bitter intrastate fight has emerged over whether the Preakness should stay in Baltimore or move to Laurel. The conflict, which spilled into the Maryland General Assembly, has aggravated tensions along class, race and regional lines.
“Right now the controversy is problematic for all of us,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “It deteriorated into a battle of sorts.”
On one side is the Stronach Group, whose pronouncements and investments over the years suggest the Ontario-based company would prefer to shift the Preakness to Laurel Park and do something else with Pimlico. Stronach owns both Maryland tracks and the Maryland Jockey Club, along with Santa Anita Park in California, Gulfstream Park in Florida and other racing venues. Company officials have floated the idea of making Laurel Park into a “super track” that could draw premier events such as the Breeders’ Cup.
On the other side is the city of Baltimore, which filed a lawsuit March 19 to seize control of the Preakness, Pimlico and even the race’s sterling silver Woodlawn Vase, a ceremonial trophy that’s been around since 1860. The city, citing laws saying the Preakness has to stay put unless there’s a natural disaster or other emergency, says Stronach is trying to manufacture an emergency by letting Pimlico deteriorate.
“It’s demolition by neglect,” Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City) said. He said Stronach has starved Pimlico and lavished millions on Laurel such that a move had become inevitable. The city’s court documents say that the company has spent $89 million at Laurel since 2011, compared with $23 million on Pimlico. Pimlico now has 12 days of live racing each year; Laurel has 168. There also are about 50 workers employed by trainers who are housed at Pimlico, and about 260 at Laurel, Stronach said.
Moving the Preakness — which brings hundreds of thousands of fans and millions of dollars a year to a hard-pressed city and neighborhoods that are mostly home to African Americans and other minorities — would be “unconscionable,” Mosby said.
“When you look at horse racing in Maryland, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that 99 percent of the ownership does not come from the African American community,” Mosby said. “However, when you look at all the slot money and all the money that’s pumped into it from the state perspective, a significant amount comes from African American communities.”
But Stronach officials said Pimlico’s decline began before the company took ownership in 2011, as did the gradual shift of live racing from there. Estimates of the cost to renovate the decrepit track at “Old Hilltop” now run from $300 million to $500 million. Some question whether anyone can keep two tracks going that are a little less than 30 miles apart, given the overall decline of horse racing in the United States.
“How many race tracks can the state support?” said state Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), a co-sponsor of a measure that would have directed as much as $120 million toward renovations for Laurel and the Bowie Race Course Training Center. She said Mosby and others had transformed a debate over simple economics into something “nasty.”
“I’m not a proponent of saying whether we close Pimlico and move the Preakness. But I’m a proponent of helping Laurel in my district, and the Bowie training center, and bringing the Breeders’ Cup to Maryland,” Beidle said.
Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney who represents Stronach, said Baltimore’s attempt to seize Pimlico through eminent domain not only is preempted by the state’s exclusive authority over racing, but sends a bad message to other businesses. He emphasized that no decision has been made about what to do with Pimlico or whether to move the Preakness.
“If you’re weighing and balancing the two facilities and their proximity to population centers, the Laurel track seems to have a greater and more realistic future,” Rifkin said. “But the decision has not been made. Raising the question about the future is not the same as answering the question.”
By any measure, horse racing’s popularity has been in decline for years, with only about half as many races as just a few decades ago. For some, the sport of kings seems more like the exclusive sport of millionaires, with few human (or animal) stars to engage with, and a day at the track just doesn’t fit in with concerts, movies, TV, social media or other professional sports — not to mention other forms of gambling, including simulcasting and online betting. More than a few see horse racing as downright cruel to the animals.
Yet Maryland’s horse-racing industry has turned around since voters endorsed a plan to legalize slots and use some of the money for horse racing. The 2008 ballot question allowed Maryland to narrow the competitive gap with Pennsylvania and other neighboring states that brought in slots years earlier. Since 2012, when a new revenue-sharing plan was struck, the number of Maryland-bred horses has risen 75 percent, according to the Jockey Club’s 2019 Maryland Fact Book.
That’s important for an industry that has generated nearly $1.2 billion and supported more than 9,000 jobs, according to the Maryland Stadium Authority. The Preakness alone gives the state’s economy an annual $33.7 million jolt.
Murray, who’s grateful her horse farm is one of many that have benefited indirectly from slots, expressed hope about the future, regardless of whether the Preakness is run in Baltimore or Laurel. Like other horse owners, she can see both sides.
“I think Pimlico is deteriorating. It’s going to take a lot of money to fix it,” she said. And yet: “It’s a shame really to let all that history go. It really is.”