By DYLAN WAUGH
ANNAPOLIS (March 18, 2009) - Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said Tuesday the state should consider purchasing the rights to the Preakness Stakes and building its own racetrack if the race is put up for sale by its bankrupt owner.
Preakness owner Magna Entertainment Corp., which also owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park racetrack, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month and has suggested all of its assets might be on the table.
Under Maryland law the state has the right to match any offer for the Preakness, and Miller is hesitant to let the highly-profitable and historic annual event go elsewhere.
"We could lease it out to someone else or we could just keep it at Pimlico, we'll see what happens," Miller said. "Maybe even build our own racetrack."
Miller called the idea of the state-financed racetrack a "last-ditch option" but stressed the importance of keeping the Preakness profits in the state.
"It certainly would be easier to build a racetrack rather than lose millions and millions of dollars of Maryland money," he said.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said it's too early to say whether the state should get involved if the Preakness is put up for sale, but the governor supports having the race in Maryland.
"The governor is willing to work with the leaders of the General Assembly to ensure the Preakness stays in the state of Maryland," said Christine Hansen, the spokeswoman.
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said that speculating about the future of the Preakness is premature.
"Everyone agrees that the Preakness is an important event for the state of Maryland," Hughes said. "The state would look at all possible alternatives, weighing the importance of the Preakness and the desire to keep it in Maryland with the current financial situation."
Miller also cited horse racing's storied legacy in Maryland as a reason for the state to consider purchasing the Preakness.
"George Washington would come over from Virginia to race and gamble on horses here in Annapolis," Miller said.
The 134th Preakness is scheduled for May 16 at Pimlico. The race typically draws more than 100,000 people and a national television audience as the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown.
"The nation's eyes are upon Maryland," Miller said.
It's unknown how a new ban on bringing beverages into the race will affect attendance this year.
Horse racing's already-gloomy financial situation is not projected to get the boost from slots earnings touted by slots proponents during last year's referendum.
The state has designated almost 10 percent of expected slots revenue for horse racing. But after receiving bids for fewer than half of the 15,000 slot terminals allowed under law, the industry is in line to receive a fraction of the $129 million the state projected by fiscal year 2013.
Like Miller, House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, puts some of the blame for horse racing's current situation on the way slots were passed in Maryland.
"It's unfortunate that the legislature and Gov. O'Malley have played games with slots for so many years that we're even in this position with the potential to lose the Preakness," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell said it is too early to talk about buying the Preakness.
Miller has repeatedly critiqued the provision in state law permitting bids for slot parlors in non-racetrack locations.
"It should have been spelled out that they're at racetracks—Laurel race track and Pimlico race track where racing is taking place right now," Miller said.
Magna, the owners of the Preakness, submitted a bid through a subsidiary, Laurel Racing Association, to put 4,750 slot machines at Laurel Park but the bid was tossed by the state slots commission for failing to include $28.5 million in required fees. Laurel Racing's legal challenge to get the bid reinstated was rejected in court last week, but the group is planning to file an appeal.
While the industry is struggling financially, Miller, a history buff, was quick to lash out at those who questioned the importance of maintaining the state's horse racing tradition.
"Those that want to throw history under the bus, in my opinion, deserve to be thrown under the bus themselves," Miller said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.