When the 140th Preakness Stakes is run at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, the event will be the shining moment of the year in Maryland racing, but it will also represent the industry’s most vexing problem. The Preakness confers major league status on the sport in Maryland, yet Pimlico is an embarrassment: decrepit, dysfunctional, devoid of charm or glamour.
For decades, various owners of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates both Pimlico and Laurel Park, have faced an unresolvable dilemma. Maintaining two large facilities just 28 miles from each other is impractical and costly. Laurel’s location makes it the logical place to run a year-round racing operation. But historic Pimlico is untouchable because of the Preakness and its importance to Baltimore. The Maryland Jockey Club has shrunk Pimlico’s share of the racing calendar — it will operate on just 37 dates this year while Laurel runs 112 — but the two-track status quo remains.
Owner Frank Stronach’s organization now seems ready to focus on this issue. Stronach signaled his intentions when he told Tim Ritvo, president of the highly successful Gulfstream Park, to divide his time between Florida and Maryland and address the latter’s problems.
Stronach is willing to invest significant money in racing facilities — he built a whole new Gulfstream — but since he got involved in Maryland in 2002, the sport has been too troubled to justify a large financial outlay.
The conditions finally have changed. An infusion of revenue from slot machines around the state has boosted purses, made the racing product healthier and subsidized part of the tracks’ operations. Horsemen and management signed an agreement that ended years of bitter fighting. There is hope for the future. Now, Ritvo said, “We’re looking at the whole financial model in Maryland. That’s the main reason I’m here.”
Stronach and Ritvo have observed how Churchill Downs keeps improving its facility in ways that make the Kentucky Derby more and more profitable. In 2013, it completed a $9 million renovation that included what it calls “our most luxurious hospitality venue,” the Mansion, with “four-star dining,” a “personal concierge” for every guest and an average ticket price of $10,000 per person. The Maryland Jockey Club can make small improvements at Pimlico — it has installed new flat-screen TVs around the plant this year — but Ritvo said, “The building is so old that engineers say it can’t withstand a retrofit. It’s too old to accept additions like Churchill Downs.”
If Stronach is determined to make a major change in Maryland, as he did in Florida, the Pimlico plant needs to be razed. Then he would have these choices: (1.) Build a new track on the present site; (2.) Build a new track at a different location; or (3.) Move the Preakness to a substantially rebuilt Laurel Park.
Anyone looking to construct a racetrack from the ground up would probably consider the moon as a possible location before looking at Park Heights Boulevard and Belvedere Avenue in Baltimore. Pimlico is not convenient to major thoroughfares; getting out of the track after the Preakness is a nightmare. The size of the property — 125 acres — doesn’t allow much room for expansion. (Churchill has 147 acres, Belmont Park 445.) Pimlico’s neighborhood is inelegant, to say the least, with no restaurants, hotels or shops that a racetrack visitor likely would patronize.
Rebuilding Pimlico in its present location wouldn’t change any of these drawbacks. And even if there were a suitable site elsewhere in Baltimore, a new Pimlico would still leave the Maryland Jockey Club with the costly burden of maintaining two properties.
Laurel’s location has an abundance of virtues. It is situated midway between Baltimore and Washington. It is close to several major thoroughfares and can efficiently handle the traffic at a big event. It sits on 310 acres of property — more than enough for expansion and parking to accommodate Preakness-size crowds.
Moving the Preakness and all of Maryland racing to an improved Laurel should be a choice so obvious that it barely merits debate — except for the politics of the issue. The Preakness is too important to Baltimore’s image and economy for the city to lose its track without a fight.
This is not a new issue. In 1947, the Maryland Jockey Club purchased Laurel with the idea of shifting Pimlico’s racing there. The state legislature squelched the plan. In the 1990s, when Joe De Francis was president of the tracks, he considered the same idea but concluded, “It would have been a firestorm in Annapolis.”
Bruce Quade, current chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, is well attuned to racing politics in the state, and he said, “To close down one track or the other would get a huge political reaction. My personal reaction is that I would try to talk them out of it.”
But he also acknowledged the financial realities of the Laurel/Pimlico issue: “Can we say: ‘Stronach, we want you to run two tracks and keep on losing money?’ ”
Stronach bears no resemblance to the corporate types at Churchill Downs Inc. who are completely obsessed by the bottom line. He loves the sport. Ritvo said, “He’s willing to put more money into the game than he’ll ever get out of it. He’s happy to get a small return on his investment.”
Stronach has made some unpredictable decisions in his career as a racetrack operator, and he might decide to rebuild Pimlico. But he and Ritvo surely realize that the two-track arrangement in Maryland is unsustainable. If Stronach, at age 82, is willing to spend his money to make Laurel a suitable home for the Preakness and to give the sport a sensible model for the future, industry leaders and politicians should recognize that they are getting an offer they may never see again.