Will Preakness Stakes Remain in Baltimore?

Pimlico Race Course (Photo by Heather Norris)

The Preakness Stakes has always held a special place in the heart of Sandy Rosenberg. After all, Rosenberg grew up within walking distance from the iconic Pimlico Race Course in what was then a predominately Jewish neighborhood.

Rosenberg, 66, a lifelong Baltimore City resident, has fond memories of some of the most famous moments in horse racing history. It was in the attic of his friend Jay Slater’s house at Rogers and Merville avenues in 1973 where Rosenberg caught a glimpse of Secretariat bolting past the competition en route to becoming first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” said Rosenberg, a Democratic state delegate whose 41st District includes the Pimlico area. “[Pimlico is] a place where there were a lot of celebrated occasions and still are.”

But talk has swirled for years that the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, could be headed for nearby Laurel Park at some point in the future.

While the Preakness, which takes place May 20, has a sentimental connection for many Baltimoreans, uncertainty surrounding the future of the race and the outdated facilities at Pimlico bodes ill for the neighborhood.

Business executives, elected officials and neighborhood advocates say there is a strong consensus that the 147-year-old Northwest Baltimore facility needs a complete overhaul.

But questions on how to fund any potential renovations — or a new track altogether — linger unanswered.

A study released by the Maryland Stadium Authority in February estimated that it would cost $250 million to$320 million to renovate Pimlico if the Preakness is to remain there long term. The Stadium Authority is also looking at the possibility of  building a new facility.

The Canadian-based Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, “would have a minimal investment” in a new Baltimore facility, Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the company’s racing division, told the JT.

“If the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland want the [Preakness] to stay in Baltimore, we would expect the Maryland Stadium Authority to fund the majority of the project,” Ritvo said. “Whether you believe the Preakness should remain in Baltimore or it should find a new home, everyone agrees that [Pimlico] should be rebuilt. The 1870s building, as great as its been, the historical value of this property to the community and city has run its course.”

Pimlico, the second-oldest operating track in the U.S., first hosted the Preakness in 1873 and has held the race every year since 1909.

The fear among city and state lawmakers is if no viable solution is worked out, the Stronach Group could take steps to move the Preakness to Laurel, where the track’s owner is “bullish” on future development.

Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming is walked back to his stable after a morning workout at Pimlico in preparation for Saturday’s Preakness. (Photo Provided)

A second phase of the Stadium Authority study, expected to be completed and released later this year, is addressing — among others things — public-private funding options for Pimlico, Rosenberg said. He is hopeful state lawmakers will explore those options when the 2018 legislative session convenes in Annapolis in January.

Rosenberg likened the possible loss of the Preakness to the Baltimore Colts leaving town in 1984, saying, “If the Preakness leaves, there will not be another Cleveland Browns that come to town. I think everybody wants to keep it here, but this is something we are not going to be able to replace since there are only three Triple Crown races.”

The Stronach Group is not seeking to move the race, Ritvo said, but from a financial perspective, “it makes no sense for us to invest in two facilities.” He said the company generates more money running Laurel day-to-day — largely because of luxury seating that Pimlico doesn’t have — despite offering no infield seating and having smaller crowds than Pimlico.

In addition to luxury seating, the Stronach Group has spent $35 million on upgrades such as state-of-the-art barns and new landscaping at Laurel, Ritvo said, which is hosting 150 race days this year.

At Pimlico, the Stronach Group has only made minor enhancements totaling $8 million and pared back racing days to just 12 this year, which started on Thursday.

Still, Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh said she is confident the resources and support are in place to prevent the Preakness from leaving the city.

“It is clear that the commitment is there to ensure resources are made available to meet the need to either renovate or completely rebuild this great racing institution,” Pugh told the JT in a prepared statement. “I am excited to work with Pimlico and stakeholders throughout the Park Heights community to take the track and the neighborhood to the next level.”

Some economic experts believe it is in the Stronach Group’s best interest to invest heavily on keeping the Preakness in its current location.

Dr. Daraius Irani, chief economist of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, noted the Preakness is the state’s largest sporting event and has attracted record crowds three consecutive years. Last year’s race drew a crowd of 135,256, shattering the previous year’s total by 2.5 percent, and generated a betting handle of $94.1 million, smashing the previous year’s total by 10.8 percent.

A Laurel Preakness, Irani said, sounds appealing appeal but would diminish the tradition that is the race’s chief asset.

“It wouldn’t be the Preakness if it wasn’t at Pimlico,” Irani said. “Companies might say, ‘Eh, I might not want to sponsor [the Preakness] because it’s in Laurel’ — not that Laurel is a bad community — but it just doesn’t have that rich history of horse racing. Therefore, it creates that feeling that the race isn’t as special as being in Pimlico, giving investors a little less bite for their money.”

Ritvo pointed out that Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., generates nine times the revenue from the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of the Triple Crown, than Pimlico does from the Preakness.

He said much of that has to do with amenities such as luxury boxes, which Pimlico’s structure simply cannot support as configured. He also pointed to the $3 million cost of building and tearing down Pimlico’s popular infield every year.

“That’s where we lose on those kind of experiences, and we also lose on the ticket sales,” Ritvo said. “… But if the city, state and Maryland Stadium Authority want to come up with a viable long-term plan for Pimlico, then we’re all in.”

A number of incidents have cast a spotlight on the need for renovations at Pimlico. Just two years ago, for example, a water issue affected utilities at the facility, leading to the closure of some bathrooms.

Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5), who represents the Pimlico area, said he feels city and state taxpayers should not reward the Stronach Group for its “neglect” of Pimlico.

“They simply don’t care,” Schleifer said of the Stronach Group. “And their reason for not caring is simple. They can do better by not caring than by caring. It’s a bad predicament for us to be in, but I think the tables need to be reversed on them.”

In order to move the Preakness to Laurel, the Stronach Group would need to drum up legislative support in the General Assembly.

Current state law mandates that the race can only be moved to another site in Maryland “as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

For his part, Rosenberg said he is optimistic he can arrange a meeting with the Stronach Group and city and state officials by the end of the year to determine the best course forward.

“Look, there is no question everyone involved wants what is best for this race,” Rosenberg said. “For Baltimore, I think [rebuilding Pimlico] is what is best, not just for my district, but for the entire city and even state. It’s critical that we do whatever we can to ensure the race stays here.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

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