By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009
The company that owns Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course has promised that the horses will run as usual May 16, that the champagne will flow in the elite boxes and that the beer will soak the rowdy infield for the 134th running of the yearly Preakness Stakes.
But the firm's dire financial plight has prompted a wave of concern that after that, Maryland's signature national sporting event, and a beloved cultural tradition, will be in peril. Soon after Magna Entertainment sought bankruptcy protection this month, Annapolis heated up with speculation that Pimlico and the Preakness could end up on the auction block.
Could Maryland lose its precious third of the Triple Crown series, its only annual guarantee of 1 minute 55 seconds in the national spotlight and a massively popular gala that generates about $60 million in economic activity?
The Preakness is a remarkably well-protected local institution. Maryland lawmakers, many of whom still mutter darkly about the overnight move of the Baltimore Colts, have made it effectively illegal to move the Preakness across state lines. The state government has a statutory right of first purchase of the race if it comes up for sale. Another law would slap an automatic tax increase on Magna's Maryland operations if it moved the Preakness to one of its out-of-state tracks. An additional law would allow the state racing commission to strip coveted racing days.
With those levers in hand, state leaders signaled last week how far they are willing to go to keep the Preakness running on Maryland turf. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the state should be prepared to buy the race if necessary and build a track to house it. He floated the idea of an emergency legislative session devoted to saving the Preakness. And Thursday, a surprise meeting between Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos suggested that the hunt for a deep-pocket savior is on.
"Obviously, we have a stake in keeping the Preakness in Maryland. That's a priority," said O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec. "But it's also a priority for it to be resolved in the marketplace, for a private buyer to come and resolve the issue."
O'Malley has also directed the state Department of Economic and Business Development to monitor Magna's condition and be ready to get involved if the Preakness became imperiled, Adamec said. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he could see the state buying the rights to the event as a last resort, until a financial savior turned up.
Even Miller, who went further than most in musing about a public bailout of the race, said the best outcome would be for a private buyer to take over the Preakness or for Magna to find its footing and carry on as steward of the Preakness.
The reaction of state officials highlights the Preakness's alone-at-the-top status in the Maryland sports hierarchy. As the second jewel in the Triple Crown, the Preakness also catches the attention of people who aren't racing fans but want to see whether the winner of the Kentucky Derby can make it two in a row.
And like the Indianapolis 500 and Pasadena's Rose Bowl, the Preakness is steeped in local pride. Each year, the governor is an honored guest, and the surrounding blocks of Baltimore ring with the sound of "Maryland, My Maryland" sung by the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club.
The annual Army-Navy game might be just as steeped in tradition, but that spectacle takes place in neutral Philadelphia. The World Series hasn't been in Maryland since 1983. The Super Bowl, never.
The Preakness "is just huge. It is, by far, the biggest single event day in Maryland," said Richard J. Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Even better, you know it's going to happen every year. Maybe the Ravens get into the Super Bowl, maybe they don't."
Last year, 120,000 fans filled Pimlico for a ritual that bridges two radically different worlds: the fancy-hatted garden party of Maryland's horse racing elite and the boozy mosh pit in the packed infield (where the best view of the race might be the one college guys get as they dive from the tops of the portable toilets).
But the wild popularity of the Preakness belies the slow collapse of the state's horse racing industry, and Canadian-based Magna in particular. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection soon after its bid for a license to put slot machines at Laurel Park was rejected by the state because it failed to pay the required $28 million license fee. It is challenging the ruling in court.
Magna has seen the number of racing days dwindle in the state. And last year, the company closed the storied training stables lining the backstretch of Pimlico, moving horses and stable workers to other facilities.
Although Maryland's beleaguered horse community has plenty to worry about, Hoffberger said, feelings about the future of the Preakness aren't too bleak. It has probably become too big to fail, in more ways than one.
"I don't know where else you could fit that crowd," he said of the super-roomy dimensions of the Baltimore racecourse. "Everybody is trying to find the best economic deal for the state, but every indication is that it's going to stay at Pimlico."