Keep Preakness in Baltimore? Don’t bet on it

(Preakness screenshot from YouTube and Preakness Stakes twitter account.)

BALTIMORE – They should have played Auld Lang Syne after War of Will galloped across the finish line here Saturday to win the 144thrunning of the Preakness Stakes. If this wasn’t the final Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, it was pretty close.

For many in the crowd of 131,256, the highlight of the day wasn’t War of Will’s victory, but the emotional punch of a small plane, high above the crowd, carrying a banner that read, “Stronach Keep Preakness in Baltimore.”

Good luck with that.

“That’s strictly a long shot,” said a former member of the Maryland Racing Commission, looking across Saturday’s huge crowd. “They’re saying Pimlico needs about $400 million in renovations. Hell, the entire Baltimore city budget’s less than $3 billion. Would you invest $400 million in a dying industry?”

The big crowd at Pimlico cheered the airplane banner but surely knew better in their hearts. This was a festive crowd, with young women in colorful spring outfits and young men pretending to know how to read a Racing Form.

Most of them haven’t a clue, which is one reason why thoroughbred horse racing’s in trouble around the country and one reason why this city braces itself for the possible loss of the Preakness. For all the carnival spirit here one weekend a year, Pimlico otherwise feels like a ghost town.

And the Stronach Group, owners of tracks around the country, are eager to shut down Pimlico and move everything south. They’ve already invested huge money in Laurel – not only in the track itself, but an entire community they’re building in the track’s very shadow.

And they’ve made it clear, they’ve had it with Pimlico.

“They bought Pimlico,” said the former racing commission member, “because they’ve got all these tracks around the country, but none has a piece of the Triple Crown. The Preakness gives them that prestige. But it doesn’t give them a first-rate facility. They thought they’d figure something out. The thinking now is, maybe they can make Laurel first-rate.”

The Stronachs don’t like Pimlico’s out-dated conditions. In fact, they declared thousands of seats unusable just days before the big race, and bathrooms were so dysfunctional Saturday that lines outside women’s lavatories looked like depression-era food lines.

The Stronachs don’t like the surrounding neighborhood, either. Lower Park Heights has been pockmarked for decades by abandoned houses, drug trafficking and gunplay. A succession of mayors has sworn great improvements are on the way. Half a century later, everybody’s still waiting.

“If somebody said to you, ‘We’re giving you $400 million to rehab Park Heights,’” the former racing commission member asked, “would your first thought be, ‘Great, let’s renovate a racetrack?’ Of course not.”

Also, the Stronachs don’t understand why the second jewel of racing’s triple crown should be run at a track that’s essentially shuttered the rest of the year.

This year, for example, Pimlico had a total of 12 days of actual racing. And the only day that makes money is Preakness day.

So they should have played Auld Lang Syne Saturday after War of Will crossed the finish line.

Most of the talk now is that the Stronachs will try Pimlico one more year, and try to make sure they’ve got sufficient political support for moving the Preakness to Laurel. With a brand new House Speaker, and with Senate President Thomas V. (Mike) Miller’s future uncertain, the politics of such a move are a little uncertain.

One bit of talk lately making the rounds is this: If the Stronachs feel emboldened enough to strip 144 years of history from Pimlico, what happens if they’re unhappy in Laurel? Might they simply move the Preakness to one of their other tracks – Santa Anita, for example – thereby stripping the last vestiges of thoroughbred racing from Maryland?

One thought on “Keep Preakness in Baltimore? Don’t bet on it

  • May 22, 2019 at 3:27 PM

    The question needs to be asked, and pondered honestly: is horse racing a good return on the investment of all the public money that is poured into it here in MD?

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