By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"It was an atmospheric delight," recalled Baltimore native Howard Hall Jr., 82. Hall was 10 when his father, a porter for the Maryland Jockey Club, deposited him in the grandstand on race day. More than 40,000 people jammed into the venue. Another 40 million, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, listened on the radio.
"It was the era of the streetcar, and I can remember the overcrowded streetcars heading toward Pimlico on a daily basis," Hall said. "Everybody was going to the races. Before television, before basketball . . . racing was the number one sport for fans."
Today, Pimlico is as faded as a turn-of-the-century postcard. It cries out for a new grandstand. All that remains of the clubhouse, which was destroyed by fire in 1966, is a replica of the cupola on display in the infield. And its aging stables aren't worthy of their distinguished four-legged boarders.
"Obviously it's functional," Chuckas said. "We've done a lot of work to bring it up to nicer standards. But really to compete and make it a real jewel, it needs work. It needs a retrofit."
Laura Hillenbrand, the best-selling author of "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," knows firsthand the magic that endures in the track's shabby confines. For years Hillenbrand, a native of Fairfax, would rise before dawn on Preakness mornings and drive to Pimlico with her sister to sit by the fence until the sun came up and the gates were flung open. Then they would run the length of the homestretch and stake out a place at the finish. Between races she would lean over the rail and dream about the great horses that had thundered down the track.
"When the people and the animals who wrote history are gone, the setting remains," Hillenbrand wrote in an e-mail interview. "That is what connects us to our past. For me, as for so many other people, it would be a catastrophe for Pimlico to lose the Preakness. That connection would be lost. The great race, the sport, and Maryland would be diminished by it. I pray it never happens.
But the challenges are daunting.
With a negligible presence on television, horse racing is irrelevant to most young sports fans. And when it has captured the spotlight, too often it has been because of tragedy -- the collapse of the filly Eight Belles, euthanized after breaking both front ankles as she crossed the finish of the 2008 Kentucky Derby; the injury to 2006 Derby winner Barbaro at the start of that year's Preakness, followed by the futile attempt to rehabilitate him.
As attendance and wagers decline, storied tracks across the country are paring their schedules, Churchill Downs included. Meantime, lesser tracks with slots are faring well, luring business from tracks in states without gaming parlors, such as Kentucky, whose governor recently declared its racing industry "in near freefall."
The impact in Maryland has been devastating, according to Joe De Francis, a former president of the Maryland Jockey Club whose father owned Pimlico and Laurel Park before selling to Magna.
"In the mid-1990s, Delaware and West Virginia were not even on our competitive radar screen," De Francis said. "Pennsylvania was a fly on an elephant compared to Maryland because we had the best market. We had a 250-year tradition; a large, well-developed breeding industry; the Preakness; and 8 million people within a 50-mile radius of Laurel. We were the 800-pound gorilla."
But six months after Maryland voters approved slots, projected to raise $600 million a year (of which 9.5 percent is earmarked for the horse racing industry), not one machine is online.
"It's like we're in the desert and they told us we have water, but we still haven't tasted it yet," said Michael Pons, a third-generation Maryland horse breeder.
Still, he's hopeful Magna can reverse its fortunes or sell its Maryland tracks to a buyer with vision, deep pockets and even deeper loyalty to the state. "We've been going around and around on a downward spiral," Pons said. "But nothing tells me we can't pull out of this."
For at least a few minutes Saturday, when the bugler calls the 13 thoroughbreds to post and the huge crowd is invited to sing "Maryland, My Maryland," the wrangling over the state's horse racing industry will stop.
But soon after the blanket of black-eyed Susans is draped on the proud back of the 2009 Preakness victor, the focus will shift to bankruptcy court, legislative backrooms and corporate boardrooms, where the real jockeying over the race's future will resume.