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Will The Preakness Stakes Remain At Pimlico Race Course?

June 15, 2015

Horse racing in Maryland seems fated to exist in an endless state of uncertainty.

These days, the worry isn't that the Preakness Stakes, the largest single-day annual event in Maryland, may move to another state.

Instead, the question is whether the Preakness will remain at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore or travel south to its sister track, Laurel Park, in Anne Arundel County. And there's a second possible change to ponder -- whether the Preakness will remain the third Saturday in May or move to a Sunday.

Preakness 2015: American Pharoh
Photo Credit: Maryland Jockey Club

Those were the sensitive issues Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra tried to discuss as tactfully as he could during Preakness Day at Pimlico May 16, when American Pharoah won the second jewel in racing's Triple Crown on a sloppy rain-soaked track. 

The Maryland Jockey Club operates thoroughbred tracks and the Preakness Stakes, but it is part of a larger corporate entity, the Stronach Group, based in Canada. The possibility of the Preakness moving to a more suburban setting and, indeed, the viability of Pimlico itself are two elements in a multi-faceted dilemma facing the Stronach Group, which is led by its 82-year-old founder, Frank Stronach, an auto parts magnate and avid horseracing enthusiast.

As anyone who has visited either Pimlico or Laurel knows, both tracks are lacking in the amenities paying customers have come to expect in any modern sports venue, whether it's a football stadium, baseball park, indoor arena or race track.

When the water pressure at Pimlico went on the fritz during the latest Preakness Day and huge sections of the grandstand suffered out-of-order toilets, it was considered par for the course by many of the 131,680 fans who were inconvenienced. There's a palpable sense of resignation among many Preakness-goers that Pimlico is simply a venerable, historically rich (if decrepit) racetrack they just have to put up with on that one special day a year. It's sort of like an eccentric relative you only see at Thanksgiving. And some folks even find Old Hilltop's quirkiness kind of endearing.

But for the Maryland Jockey Club to staunch the red ink it has been bleeding during the last several years, there will have to be changes. Those changes mean cost savings in some areas while deciding how to best spend the money needed to improve both tracks.

Sinatra, in a radio interview after the Preakness, said the Maryland Jockey Club has been losing $3 million to $6 million per year for the last six to eight years. Hired Nov. 22, 2014 from the racetrack attached to Parx Casino in suburban Philadelphia, Sinatra said it's his mandate to turn around the financial picture. How he does that will depend entirely on the decisions made within the Stronach Group sometime this year.

Pimlico Race Track Preakness Sign
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

To re-do Pimlico would require what amounts to tearing down the facility and rebuilding. Sinatra tossed out a round figure of $500 million to get the job done. On the other hand, Laurel has good structural bones, Sinatra said, and the Maryland Jockey Club can spend half that amount and have, in the end, a “palace.” 

So, where does the Stronach Group and the Maryland Jockey Club put their cash?

If one takes a bean counter's view, the decision is obvious. It's Laurel.

But racing tradition and civic responsibility would dictate that the big race stays at Pimlico Race Course, where it has been run continuously since 1909 and for a good many years during the 19th century as well.

So, this is going to be a tough call.

Sinatra has said it many times: "Frank [Stronach] wants to do something special in Maryland."

Stronach has already invested heavily in Gulfstream Park in South Florida and at Santa Anita Park in Southern California.

Gulfstream, in particular, reflects Stronach's philosophy of an integrated racing destination that incorporates elements of retail, dining, entertainment and even residential into a racing “village.” 

In Maryland, that can only happen at Laurel, because that facility encompasses more than double the real estate Pimlico's hemmed-in 125 acres occupy.

Once built and operating, an integrated facility with dining, entrainment and shopping (plus year-round simulcasting to go along with live racing) has the potential to provide a relatively robust return on investment 365 days a year; not just on the 110 to 115 or so days each year there is live racing at Laurel.

And what about Pimlico?

Sinatra is admittedly a horseracing traditionalist.

His ultimate boss, Frank Stronach, is also an old-school racing guy.

Moving the Preakness from Saturday to Sunday may be a relatively easy move to make. It gives Sinatra a crack at a more lucrative three-day racing festival that he keeps mentioning with Black-Eyed Susan Day on a Saturday and the Preakness Stakes on a Sunday.

But moving the Preakness to Laurel is a tough one for everyone. 

The pushback from the racing community at large will be big.

And the resistance from both the city of Baltimore, but more importantly from the state government in Annapolis, Md., will be far more substantial.

Gov. Larry Hogan has already stated he wants the Preakness in Baltimore.

A reasonable guess is that Stronach and Co. will say something to the effect of, "Well, can you help us keep it there?"

Horse racing interests can't say such a thing too loudly or too insistently, because the racing industry already gets a healthy slice of slot machine revenues from the state's five casinos. And it would be a fair guess to presume more than a few legislators in Annapolis are tired of the horse racing industry with its hand out. 

Yet, if that's what it takes -- meaning some help in some way -- to keep the race from being shifted from one Maryland location to another, some negotiating and diplomacy may be in order.

Sinatra has suggested a boutique meet at Pimlico similar to one held at Keeneland in Kentucky. That would be a meet of a few weeks with the Preakness nestled in the schedule.

But a question lingers: If Stronach spends, say, $250 million on a Laurel Park renovation, can he resist putting his marquee race in his best venue?

When it comes to Maryland racing, it always seems there are more questions than answers.

Issue 210: June 2015