As National Attention Comes Once Again To The Preakness, Future Of Laurel Park Is Murky

On a mild, spring afternoon at Laurel Park, Sissy Greisman and Julie Slater are awaiting the start of the second race. While reviewing their program in search of a winning horse, they bemoan the fact that racing days at this historic track are numbered.

“It’s sad, of course it’s sad,” said Greisman, who owned and trained standardbred horses for years. “It’s iconic and it’s beautiful, but with online betting, nobody comes to the track anymore.”

For decades, the General Assembly fiercely debated how to save the struggling racing industry. Many legislators balked at having the state continue to subsidize the failing tracks year after year. This year, however, the legislature approved a complex deal that calls for a complete overhaul of Pimlico Race Course.

The Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel, has agreed to transfer ownership of “Old Hilltop” to the state, after which a nonprofit group will oversee day-to-day operations. As part of the deal, the state will sell $400 million in bonds to help fund a massive renovation of Pimlico. During construction, the 2026 Preakness will be run at Laurel Park. But the consolidation plan calls for the Anne Arundel County track to close permanently by the end of that year.

Laurel Park race track. Photo by John Rydell.

“I would have preferred that this (Laurel) be the track of choice and that it stay open, because the track is in pretty decent shape and wouldn’t need as many updates as Pimlico,” said Slater, who lives in Howard County. “So I’m disappointed the choice has been made for what they’re going to do.”

Veteran horse trainer Katie Voss calls it “a huge loss for Maryland to lose Laurel.”

Voss recalls another scaled-back plan considered several years ago to partially renovate Pimlico and only use it to host the Preakness. That proposal called for Laurel Park to be used for year-round racing.

“But they couldn’t make the numbers work. Politically, the Preakness had to stay in Baltimore,” Voss said. “That’s politics. The industry really hasn’t had any control of that. You couldn’t afford to keep both.”

Laurel Park opened in 1911 as the site of a multicounty fair. At the time, Laurel was a sleepy town with a cotton mill and just a few businesses on Main Street and Route 1. The racetrack would eventually become the area’s biggest employer.

Voss said the track’s biggest selling point was its central location. “We’ve always felt that Laurel gives you access to the Washington market and that whole side of Maryland, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County,” she said.

For decades, Laurel Park hosted the Washington, D.C., International Turf Cup, which attracted top horses from the U.S., Europe and even the Soviet Union. In 1954, Queen Elizabeth entered a horse named “Landau” in the prestigious event. Actress Elizabeth Taylor and former Navy Secretary John Warner made the winner’s circle trophy presentation in 1976, with the two marrying later that year.

Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the cup “was an international event before horse racing had anything like that. They had embassy parties every year. It was just an amazing event.”

The D.C. International’s run came to an end in the 1990s with the emergence of the Breeder’s Cup as the premier horse racing event.

For most of the past 38 years, Laurel Park has hosted Maryland Million Day, featuring 10 races with Maryland-bred horses. The fancy event, created by Hall of Fame Broadcaster Jim McKay, usually draws more than 20,000 fans.

During its history, Laurel also hosted numerous concerts. In July 1969, one month before Woodstock, thousands of fans jammed the track for the two-day Laurel Pop Festival, featuring Led Zepplin, Johnny Winter, Jethro Tull and Sly and the Family Stone. According to newspaper accounts, Prince George’s County Police shut down the concert well after 2 a.m., when a rowdy group of fans set fire to folding wooden chairs.

In recent years, Laurel Park, like many thoroughbred tracks nationwide, has fallen on hard times. Attendance is sparse, particularly during weekday racing. Thirteen horses were euthanized last year while training or racing, according to a report from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. It said a trainer and jockey were also injured during the incidents. The fatalities were blamed, in part, on poor track conditions, and Laurel Park was forced to suspend live racing until track repairs were completed.

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, says, “Laurel Park has been a community institution for decades and decades and decades, but obviously it’s been declining as well, and the way people spend their entertainment dollars has changed dramatically over recent years.”

The grandstand at Laurel Park race track is rarely full. The future of the track, after it temporarily hosts the Preakness, is unknown. Photo by John Rydell.

During that time, Rosapepe says, the area surrounding Laurel Park has been doing quite well. He points to the expansion of Fort Meade, both on base and off base, and many development projects in Western Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County. “So the economic significance of the area around the track is much more than it may have been 50 years ago.”

When the Preakness does move to Laurel in 2026, it’s expected to be a much smaller event than held at Pimlico. Fans as well as corporate tents will be prohibited in the infield, since the ground sits on a flood plain and is considered protected wetlands. In some parts of the infield, the surface is below the track itself. Four years ago, the Stronach Group sold more than 60 acres of land near the track, in which a huge luxury condo complex, known as Paddock Pointe, is being constructed. After Laurel Park is permanently closed, the Canadian company will have the option of selling the remaining property.

Despite Laurel’s impending shutdown, one source familiar with Maryland’s racing industry cautions that consolidating thoroughbred racing to just Pimlico still poses enormous financial risk. He says the industry is currently losing $12 million to $15 million annually, and much of that financial burden will have to be shouldered by the state even with just one racetrack.

For Rosapepe, however, there is a consolation for those who still treasure the 113-year old track. “The one good thing is, whether it’s for one year, or two years or for three years, it will be cool to have the Preakness in Laurel.”