BALTIMORE — On Saturday, Pimlico Race Course will be perfect.
The flowers will be in bloom, the sun (God willing) will be shining, and more than 100,000 fans will enjoy the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. Inside the Owner’s Chalet — a 3,000-square-foot tent pitched on the infield near the finish line — VIPs such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and actor Kevin Spacey will eat, drink and party amid clubby leather armchairs, heirloom rugs, hanging chandeliers and a massive wooden bar. It’s Soho House meets Ralph Lauren, a glimpse of the modern luxury that Maryland racing could be.
At the center of it all: Belinda Stronach, the woman trying to make horse racing exciting the other 364 days of the year.
The petite blonde is president of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, Laurel and four other premier racetracks in the United States. Her job is make the Sport of Kings cool and fun, not a dusty relic of a bygone era.
“Horse racing is the last great legacy sport that has not modernized,” she says. “It hasn’t evolved, hasn’t embraced technology. We haven’t reinvested in this sport to create more owners and new fans.”
And Pimlico racetrack is her problem child. Once the crowds leave, every one of its 147-year-old flaws becomes painfully obvious. “Pimlico is an embarrassment: decrepit, dysfunctional, devoid of charm or glamour,” opined racing expert Andrew Beyer in 2015.
According to a study released earlier this year, it’s going to cost at least $300 million to renovate the beloved old wreck. Which puts Stronach in the middle of a passionate, ongoing fight: whether to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, whatever the cost, or move it to the more modern Laurel racetrack.
Stronach, 51, has several informal titles: business executive, heiress, politician, celebrity.
Her father, Frank, emigrated from Austria to Canada and turned his tool-and-die skills into Magna International, a global auto-parts company, and a $3 billion fortune. Belinda, the older of his two children, grew up in the business (“Different horsepower,” she quips) and dropped out of college after a year to work in it full time. One of her proudest moments? When the board of directors recommended to her father that she take over as chief executive in her early 30s.
But she had a political itch, too, which resulted in two terms in the Canadian Parliament — first as a Conservative, then switching to the Liberals. Glamorous and outspoken, twice divorced, she’s a household name in Canada, with friends in high places, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, who fell for each other, the story goes, at a late-night party Stronach hosted.
While she focused on the auto parts business, her father pursued his other love: horse racing. He not only bred thoroughbreds (winning the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness, and the Breeders’ Cup) but also bought racetracks: Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in California, Gulfstream in Florida, Portland Meadows in Oregon, and Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland.
“He always had a passion for horses,” Stronach says, sitting in her ginormous owner’s tent at Pimlico. “My mother and brother, they all had that passion.” But when the family sold the auto parts business and began succession planning a few years ago, it was Belinda whom Frank, now 84, asked to run his racetracks.
Unlike her father, she didn’t care much about going to the track.
“I look at this as a business, first and foremost,” she says. “What does this business need to modernize and to be successful?” Her answer: Think more like an entertainment company. “We have to compete for time, attention and eyeballs with every other sport that’s out there and other forms of entertainment.”
To start with, She wants the customer experience to be better. If all you want is betting, burgers and beer, “it’s got to be a good burger and it’s got to be a clean, fun, safe environment with a great vibe.” To attract younger fans, she’s looking at wagering platforms for people who don’t know how to handicap horses and investing in technology to make betting more like a video game. “Even if you don’t like betting on horses, you want to come for the experience, the fun of it,” she says.
To add excitement to the sport, she recently created the Pegasus World Cup, the richest horse race in the world. Twelve owners paid $1 million each for their horses to enter the inaugural race at Gulfstream Park in January. Arrogate, the sensational horse who won the Breeders’ Cup last year, galloped away with $7 million for first place.
She’d love to see the race come to Maryland, and Maryland would love to have it. After decades in decline, horse racing got a recent shot in the arm from the state’s casino boom: About 7 percent of slots revenue is earmarked for the industry, including larger purses for Maryland-bred horses and facilities. It’s a start. A good start, but only a start.
Which brings us back to Pimlico, the pride of Baltimore, awash in tradition and nostalgia, home of the storied Preakness Stakes, which was born here in 1873 and. Although at least two other tracks hosted the race in its early years, it has been run hereat Pimlico for the past 108 years.
But the track is falling apart, so old that a teardown may be smarter than a renovation. Not to mention the traffic jams around city streets in a neighborhood that has, to be generous, seen better days. This year, the park has only 12 scheduled days of racing, compared with 150 at Laurel, 28 miles away.
The Stronach Group, which invested $130 million into upgrading Florida’s Gulfstream, has poured $35 million into its two Maryland tracks over the past 15 years, with most of the money going to Laurel. As for that Maryland Stadium Authority study estimating the cost of a Pimlico upgrade at $300 million, both government officials and Stronach think this would take some kind of public-private partnership.
“It’s very difficult for us to renovate and modernize two state-of-the-art stadiums in Maryland,” Stronach says carefully, dancing diplomatically around the political land mines. “It doesn’t mean we’re not open to the idea. It means we’d have to look at partnerships with the state.”
Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has said that she is as “committed as possible” to improving the track and the neighborhood, but won’t say how much the city could contribute. Gov. Hogan is more blunt: “Obviously, the Preakness is important to the state,” he said in March. But “we’re certainly not going to write a check for $300 million.”
From a business standpoint, there’s a stronger case — more modern facilities, better accessibility — for the Preakness to be at Laurel, and Stronach believes that most industry people prefer that track. She wants more marquee events in Maryland and has already put in a bid to hold the Breeders’ Cup at Laurel within the next five years. It’s unclear whether the Stronach Group can unilaterally move it,the Preakness. Technically, state law appears to prevent it — and racing purists would howl — although there’s a provision that allows it “as a result of a disaster or emergency.” Whether a falling-down grandstand is an “emergency” is open to interpretation , but Stronach believes that the Preakness is likely to remain in place until this debate is resolved.
“I’m confident that whatever outcome, it’s going to take us forward,” she says. “It’s going to take the race forward, it’s going to take the experience forward, and I think it’s going to be good for racing in the state of Maryland.”
The 142nd Preakness Stakes, post time 6:45 p.m. Saturday, will be televised on NBC.