Pimlico sale put on hold

As 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird ran away with a shocking Kentucky Derby victory, there was more Pimlico-related news out of Baltimore yesterday, as Magna Entertainment, the track’s bankrupt owner, withdrew its proposal to auction off the historic track and a smaller Maryland track, Laurel Park.

The announcement at least temporarily stalls the brewing battle between state lawmakers and private bidders over control of the track. In April, an emergency measure passed by the General Assembly authorized Governor Martin O’Malley to use eminent domain to seize the tracks after one local bidder threatened to raze Pimlico. A lawyer representing Maryland told the Baltimore Sun that Magna’s next move is unclear.

Meanwhile, after a crowd of nearly 8,700 attended Pimlico’s opening day on April 18, ticket sales for the Preakness, the track’s only money making event, have lagged for two main reasons: The sour economic climate has eliminated sponsors and decreased the number of high priced “Corporate Village” tents, and advance Infield ticket sales are down 17 percent following a new policy banning outside alcoholic beverages from the Infield. With the future of Pimlico already in doubt, track managers from the Maryland Jockey Club might have exacerbated their losses by instituting the new policy.

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.”