Maryland moves to seize Pimlico

The future of historic Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, is in doubt as a messy legal battle over the property is brewing.

Yesterday, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed emergency legislation, passed on the last day of legislative session, that authorizes the state to buy or seize the facility by eminent domain. But there are legal questions surrounding the measure, which was rushed through in reaction to threats by Carl Verstandig, a Baltimore developer, to raze the track and build a shopping center in its place.

When asked by the Baltimore Sun in early April about the city losing the Preakness, Verstandig said, “There are plenty of locations they could use. They could run it in Timonium or any other location. I don’t think it has to be specific to Pimlico racetrack.” But it’s questionable whether the Timonium fairgrounds, located north of the city in Baltimore County, could host a Triple Crown race. The Preakness is run at a mile and 3/16ths, the shortest race of the Triple Crown series. Timonium’s oval is 5/8ths of a mile, hardly suitable for any major stakes race, let alone a classic like the Preakness. Also, Timonium’s stadium holds about 2,000 fans. Preakness attendance often exceeds 100,000, including over 30,000 in the grandstand.

The Pimlico controversy began on March 5, when track owner Magna Entertainment filed for bankruptcy just seven years after grand visions of a renovated, Las Vegas-like facility. Though a loan was secured to keep racing going at Magna’s most profitable tracks, like Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, and Santa Anita Race Track in Acadia, California, no financial arrangement was made for Pimlico, which recently cut its live racing days from 31 to 20. The 140-acre facility makes money one day a year, on Preakness day.

Now, as opening day nears on Saturday and politicians struggle in Annapolis to save the racetrack, there is no resolution in sight, and a murky legal road ahead. Verstandig, who now says he doesn’t want to raze the track, only to develop land around it, warned the Times in reaction to the emergency bill: “I think they’re leaving themselves open for some major, major litigation.”

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