Fears of the Final Stretch at Pimlico
Saturday, May 16, 2009
BALTIMORE -- With Rachel Alexandra bidding to become the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes since 1924 and long-shot Mine That Bird chasing the second jewel of an improbable Triple Crown, Saturday's horse race won't lack for story lines. But the most provocative hangs like a cloud over Maryland's biggest sporting event.
Despite vows to the contrary by the race's backers, most prominent among them Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), some fear the Preakness's future in Maryland is in jeopardy. Losing the Preakness, which was first held at Pimlico Race Course in 1873 and has been run there continuously since 1909, would represent a major blow to the state.
"It would be a tragedy if we were to lose the Preakness at Pimlico," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has two horses in Saturday's 13-horse field. "I don't think we're going to lose the Preakness itself, but you never know where it's going to go. Somebody needs to step up and take it over."
The Pimlico track, once one of the gems of horse racing, has for years been in need of a major infusion of cash. But the circumstances surrounding the track grew dire in March when Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian-based conglomerate that owns the Preakness, filed for bankruptcy and put Pimlico and its other Maryland assets up for auction. Mindful of the race's $60 million economic impact and historical significance, O'Malley insisted he wouldn't let the Preakness go, getting legislative approval to seize the track by eminent domain, if need be, to ensure it remains in the state.
Magna withdrew its proposal to auction its Maryland holdings, though that hardly solved the underlying financial problems plaguing North America's largest track owner.
Meantime, November's referendum legalizing slot machines in Maryland has yet to generate a dime to prop up the state's ailing horse racing industry. As a result, many of the sport's top owners and breeders are following the money out of state, where fat purses subsidized by the burgeoning slots business in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware are proving an irresistible lure.
Race fans are following in their wake. Attendance at the Preakness dropped 7.5 percent last year, to 112,222 from 121,263 in 2007. Moreover, the amount wagered on the race fell 19.9 percent, to $45.6 million from $57 million the previous year. Both figures could slide lower yet if disgruntled fans stay away Saturday to protest a new prohibition on bringing their own beer and other beverages into the infield.
Given horse racing's deep Maryland roots, which predate George Washington's presidency, Tom Chuckas Jr., president and chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club, insists that the Preakness isn't going anywhere.
"It's the people's race! It's the people's party! It's the people's event, which means a lot to the city and the state," Chuckas said. "I think the Preakness will be here in 2010 and for many years to follow."
Still, sports tradition means little when revenue is at stake. Major League Baseball teams have abandoned home towns for markets offering tax breaks and amenity-laden venues. And Baltimore still hasn't gotten over the loss of its beloved Colts of the National Football League 25 years ago.
"The relationship between that team and this town was almost religion," said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.
The Preakness boasts a tradition even richer than that of the Colts. And Pimlico, built in 1870, was an elegant host in its day, with violet grandstands and the Victorian Clubhouse at the first turn. On Nov. 1, 1938, it was the center of the sporting universe, hosting the match race that pitted Triple Crown winner War Admiral against the plucky Seabiscuit, champion of the downtrodden.