The Ghost of Bob Irsay Lives: History Repeats Itself In Pimlico Suit

History is repeating itself in Baltimore today.

In a story first reported by Thoroughbred News Daily, the city of Baltimore is filing suit to keep to seize control of the Preakness:

The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, plus three residents of the Park Heights neighborhood where the racetrack is located, filed suit Tuesday in a Baltimore City court against the Stronach Group in order to prevent it from moving the Preakness.

The Stronach Group has long made it known that it would like to move the race to Laurel.

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The plaintiffs are arguing the state law prohibits the Preakness from leaving Pimlico absent a disaster or an emergency and that no such disaster or emergency exists.

The suit also asks the court to condemn not only Pimlico but the Preakness itself, which would allow the city to take ownership of the race.

The Baltimore Sun has more to say about this suit.

If this type of tactic sounds familiar to you, it should.

Thirty-five years ago this month, the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis. One of the reasons that that Colts left town in the middle of the night was because the city of Baltimore threatened to seize the Colts by eminent domain. Allow me to quote from Stephen Walters and Louis Miserendino’s reportBaltimore’s Flawed Renaissance: The Failure of Plan-Control-Subsidize Redevelopment which had this to say about the eminent domain threat:

The problem was that while some Baltimore pols were offering him gifts, others were threatening to take the Colts away from him. On March 26, 1984 (the day after Mayor Schaefer pitched the city’s improved offer to Irsay), two bills were introduced for study in the Maryland legislature. One called for the state to buy the team and sell it to local investors for $40 million—about $83 million in today’s dollars, or less than a tenth of the franchise’s current estimated value. The other authorized the state to use eminent domain proceedings to condemn the team and operate it “in the public interest.” Such proposals would have made any property owner nervous, but they should not have been a surprise. Over the previous couple of decades, Baltimore’s habit of taking private property—often on the cheap—had taken firm root. Invoking a public interest in seizing a football team (which, after three consecutive last place finishes, was clearly a “blighted” property!) struck few leaders or pundits as outrageous or even an unusual exercise of government power. On March 27, Maryland’s Senate passed the second bill. It was like a gun to Irsay’s head.

The Colts were unlike previous targets of eminent domain seizures, however. Owners of bricks-and-mortar properties could only complain and litigate when confronted with condemnation threats; the Colts could get their assets out of town. And so they did. The very next day after the Senate voted, on the evening of March 28—Irsay had worried that if the move began during business hours officials would hurriedly finalize the legislation and obtain a court order to padlock the team’s rented offices—moving vans arrived and staffers packed up contracts, medical files, uniforms and other equipment. Under cover of darkness and with snowflakes swirling among a few somber onlookers, 22 vans rumbled away from the Colts’ rented facilities; by dawn, everything associated with the team was well down the highway to Indianapolis.

Baltimore hurriedly played its eminent domain trump card, but it was too late. On March 29, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed and Governor Harry Hughes signed the pending seizure legislation and city officials wired a $40 million purchase “offer” to Irsay. On March 30, the city filed a formal condemnation suit. A year and a half and $500,000 in legal fees later, U.S. District Court Judge Walter E. Black, Jr. ruled that the Colts had moved beyond Baltimore’s legal reach by the time the city had formally begun its seizure proceedings. Ever since, the Irsay name has been an expletive among Baltimore football fans. A local treasure had been stolen under cover of darkness, and anger was directed almost entirely at the thief. Little thought was given—then or now— to the repulsive power of eminent domain and other threats to the security of private property rights in the city. In the view of most policy- and opinion-makers, the episode was a tragic anomaly. Because the targets of such seizures are almost always immobile, their assets can be taken without much controversy and converted to “better” uses—case closed.

This suit against the Stronach Group sure does sound like history repeating itself, doesn’t it?

I’ve talked ad nauseam about Pimlico, the Preakness, and horse racing in general. The fact remains that it is of no value to Maryland taxpayers to refurbish Pimlico when Laurel Park already exists. In fact, the continuation of Pimlico in Maryland continues to be hurt by a state law which does require that Pimlico be run at the Preakness instead of Laurel. The mere existence of this law gives the Stronach Group all of the ammunition it needs to move the Preakness completely out of state and never look back.

And that’s where this Baltimore City lawsuit is putting taxpayers across Maryland at risk. We saw back in 1984 what can happen when the Baltimore City government decides that a sporting enterprise is too valuable to leave the city and tries to take action to seize the property by hook or by crook. It worked so well last time that the Colts have now played more seasons in Indianapolis than they did in Baltimore. But this suit has shown the Stronach Group that the city no longer is willing to work with them in good faith and is willing to condemn and seize Stronach’s physical and intellectual property without adequate compensation. And all of this at a time where the Mayor of Baltimore is besieged by scandal.

Even if the City were to be given control of Pimlico and the Preakness, how in the world would this ever work in a manner that is beneficial to either the City or to horse racing? Baltimore City government can’t keep people safe, can attract businesses without massive crony capitalist giveaways, can’t lower property taxes to a level where it’s attractive for people to live in the city, and tends to be a leading center of public corruption. How is that government going to effectively manage a horse track or promote a world-class sporting event?

The bottom line of this lawsuit is that Baltimore City has made it much more likely that the 2020 Preakness is run at Gulfstream Park in Florida instead of at any track in Maryland.

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