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Horses on the track at Laurel Park on May 7, in Laurel, Maryland.TNS/ABACA/Reuters

Two Maryland racetracks owned by the Stronach Group are under renewed scrutiny over horse deaths at the same time as a government-funded renovation plan for the facilities has stalled.

At Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday, a horse broke his leg and threw his jockey off before being euthanised on the track during an undercard race ahead of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing.

And suburban Laurel Park closed for a week last month after two horses died during back-to-back races – the third time in two years that horse deaths forced a temporary shutdown.

Meanwhile, a project to renovate both tracks has failed to get off the ground because the projected cost has far exceeded the US$375-million in public funds already committed by the state.

The troubles are shining a spotlight on the safety of the sport, which has been hammered by waves of horse deaths even as the industry has continued to be propped up by taxpayer dollars. Similar problems plagued the Kentucky Derby earlier this month at Churchill Downs, where seven horses died in the two weeks leading up to the race.

“We’re taking money that could be used for building schools and using it to subsidize a cruel and deadly industry,” said Patrick Battuello of Horseracing Wrongs, an animal welfare group. “How long are we going to keep doing this?”

The Aurora, Ont.-based Stronach Group, which does business as 1/ST Racing & Gaming, owns six horse tracks and a casino in the U.S. It is run by Belinda Stronach, a former federal cabinet minister, who took over the business from her father, auto parts magnate and racing aficionado Frank Stronach, after a family feud.

Pimlico and Laurel Park have long benefited from government help. The state directs a percentage of casino revenues to subsidize horse racing, with some money funding racing purses and some used to pay for track improvements. Last year, that money totalled more than US$90-million.

The two tracks have seen 321 horses die since 2014, according to figures compiled by Horseracing Wrongs from Freedom-of-Information requests to Maryland’s racing regulator.

Tiffani Steer, a Stronach Group spokesperson, vowed the company would “constantly monitor and evaluate” its racing surfaces, safety and medication protocols to reduce deaths at its tracks.

“We are steadfastly committed to achieving the highest level of horse care and safety standards in thoroughbred racing and training, and we have a proven track record of pushing those standards forward,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

The Stronach Group previously had to make changes to its operations after a string of horse deaths in 2019 at another of its racetracks, Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles. Amid threats of closing by state politicians, the company enacted new rules on horse treatment, including a ban on drugging and whipping the animals on racing days. After the number of deaths fell, the state opted not to act.

The company also backed the U.S. Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act in 2020, which set rules for horse treatment and created an industry-run regulator.

Ms. Steer declined to answer questions about the Stronach Group’s future in Maryland, writing, “There is no point in speculating on the final scope of the renovation project,” since “many options need to be evaluated.”

The project began in 2020, when the state government agreed to pay for overhauls to the tracks by raising US$375-million via a bond issue. In exchange, the Stronach Group agreed not to move the Preakness out of Pimlico, a 153-year-old facility. The company would also give the city control of the track for other events during the rest of the year, as well as some adjacent land for commercial redevelopment.

But the work never got started because the projected cost ballooned as high as US$725-million. In a report, the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state agency tasked with overseeing the renovations, said it discovered after the deal was struck that Laurel Park is so run down it needs a total rebuild.

The Stronach Group, meanwhile, asked for changes to the plan for Pimlico, including a larger clubhouse and longer track. It has also not yet finalized the terms of its land transfer to the city, in part because the company wants to limit how the land can be redeveloped.

Adding to the price tag, the Stronach Group learned it will have to pay tens of millions in federal tax if it receives public money to renovate Laurel Park. To avoid the charge, the company has floated the possibility of selling the track to a government agency.

The delays – amid higher inflation and interest rates – mean the bonds will raise less money than anticipated, while construction costs will be higher.

During this time, Laurel Park has dealt with clusters of horse deaths. The Stronach Group rebuilt the track over four months in 2021 after two horses died in a single morning in April of that year. It was closed again that November after seven horses died in a month. This past April 20, thoroughbreds Golden Pegasus and Bigmancan were euthanized after getting injured in consecutive races, and the Stronach Group shut and resurfaced the track once more.

Partly because of the deaths, the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which represents the state’s horse owners, are pushing for complete reconstruction of Laurel Park’s tracks.

On Saturday at Pimlico, three-year-old colt Havnameltdown was in the lead before stumbling, unseating jockey Luis Saez and limping ahead on a broken left foreleg. Track workers took him behind a black screen, where he was put down. Mr. Saez was taken off the track on a stretcher.

This month, the state set up a new agency, the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, which will craft a new renovation plan by December. The authority also has the power to take over the tracks if the Stronach Group pulls out.

Bill Cole, a Baltimore consultant who represents the city in renovation negotiations, said the state is not willing to pay more. “We’ve heard from legislative leaders that there really is no additional money for the capital program,” he said. “The legislature has been very frustrated.”

The state and city priority has long been preserving the Preakness and keeping it in Baltimore. This could mean shutting down Laurel Park entirely and moving all racing to Pimlico. Such a move would run counter to the Stronach Group’s operations in recent years; the company has held almost all racing at Laurel Park, midway between Washington and Baltimore, using Pimlico only for the Preakness.

Alan Foreman, a lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said he understands the Stronach Group is also interested in keeping control of the high-profile race. “They clearly do not want to give up Pimlico and the Preakness. I don’t think they have that same view with respect to Laurel,” he said.

An operating agreement between the Stronach Group and the horsemen’s association expires next month, and the two sides have not yet agreed on an extension. At issue in the deal, Mr. Foreman said, is a subsidy the horsemen pay the Stronach Group – more than US$90-million since 2012, taken out of revenues from simulcasting races.

Mr. Battuello’s group protested at the Preakness on Saturday in a bid to turn up the heat. Their goal is for the sport to go the way of greyhound racing, which has ended in all but one U.S. state.

To Mr. Foreman, it’s imperative to reduce the number of deaths to avoid such a fate.

“Zero fatalities is not achievable … but we do the best we can,” he said. “Any time you see it, it plays into the hands of the animal rights advocates who would be happy to see us go away.”