BALTIMORE -- Baltimore has ratcheted up a bitter dispute with the owners of a historic racetrack in an effort to seize a nearly 150-year-old course and block the move of one of America's premier horse races out of the city where it was first run in 1873.
Under state law, the Preakness Stakes — the middle jewel of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing — can be moved to another track in Maryland "only as a result of a disaster or emergency." But the Canada-based development company that owns and operates the rundown Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore has made it abundantly clear that it wants to move the storied race out of the city.
A lawsuit freshly filed by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, the City Council and three residents claims that the Canada-based development company that owns the track is "openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating."
The Stronach Group is looking at a fresher track it owns in Laurel Park — in Anne Arundel County about 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) south of the Baltimore facility — as a better option for the Preakness. It has only pledged to keep the Preakness at the Baltimore track through 2020.
In an email seeking comment about the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court, the Stronach Group said it "believes these actions are premature and unfounded."
Here's what it wants to do: Stronach aims to make some $80 million in improvements to build a "super track" at Laurel Park and company officials are lobbying Maryland's General Assembly to permit funding from gambling proceeds to help realize their vision.
Baltimore's lawsuit, meanwhile, asks a court to grant ownership of the Pimlico track and the Preakness race to Maryland's biggest city through condemnation. Baltimore is also trying to prevent the Stronach Group from using state bonds to fund improvements at Laurel Park.
The lawsuit accuses the company of essentially manufacturing a disaster by "systematically" underinvesting in Pimlico, instead spending the majority of the state aid it receives on boosting its Laurel track.
Hard feelings between Baltimore and the owners of Pimlico had been intensifying before this week's lawsuit. In a February letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland lawmakers, Pugh portrayed the Stronach Group as a family business in disarray, noting that the feuding "father, daughter and now granddaughter" were "suing one another in multiple lawsuits."
The Preakness saga's latest chapter comes a few months after the Maryland Stadium Authority issued a report saying the Pimlico track should be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of $424 million.
It said the rundown condition of the aging Baltimore track presents challenges threatening the "continued existence and the success of the Preakness Stakes," but it also stressed there did not appear to be "situational factors" such as the surrounding city neighborhood of Park Heights and accessibility issues that would "negatively affect Pimlico Race Course's ability to remain the long-term home" of the Preakness.
Pugh strongly endorsed the redevelopment plan recommended by the Maryland Stadium Authority, saying the economic opportunity it would bring could dramatically revitalize an area that's experienced disinvestment for decades.
Hogan appears less than receptive to Baltimore's latest tack, telling WBAL's radio station that "the overwhelming number of people in Maryland don't really care where it (the Preakness) is."
"They would just like to keep it in Maryland."
Yet the Republican governor also reiterated that he would like to see the major horse race remain in Baltimore.
Back in its heyday, Pimlico hosted many of the sport's most memorable races: Seabiscuit's match race with War Admiral in 1938; Man o' War's debut in 1920 with a stunning win over Upset; and Secretariat's last-to-first victory during his Triple Crown run in 1973. Though work crews have found a way to make the track presentable for the Preakness every year on the third Saturday in May, many racing fans have said the need for a dramatic makeover has been blatantly obvious for many years.
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