For years, handicapping the Preakness Stakes has been about more than picking a winner on the track. An even bigger guessing game has been about the track itself -- specifically, whether one of the world's premier horses races and a Baltimore sports treasure will continue to be held at Pimlico Race Course, the event's principal home since the 19th century.
The short answer is: No one really knows.
But the pot keeps boiling.
Last month, the Maryland Stadium Authority was tasked by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation with taking a 360-degree look at the legendary racing facility just off Northern Parkway and the impact that the event, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, has on the city and the state, according to Stadium Authority executive director Mike Frenz. This year, the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes is May 21.
So here are some of the key elements of the thorny Preakness-Pimlico dilemma:
• The racetrack itself is undoubtedly one of the most outmoded facilities in the country that still manages to hold a world-class sports event that reportedly drew more than 131,000 spectators last year.
• Despite impressive attendance figures for the Preakness Stakes, the Maryland Jockey Club, operator of the Preakness, Pimlico and Laurel Park, has a tough job in trying to improve the struggling finances of Maryland's racing assets for its parent company, Canadian-based Stronach Group.
• Executives with the Maryland Jockey Club have pointed out that major renovations at Laurel Park, about 22 miles southwest of the city, are far more feasible and would produce more long-range benefits than a complete rebuild at Pimlico. In fact, renovations at Laurel Park are underway.
• Meanwhile, Baltimore government and civic leaders rightfully view the Preakness as a highly important economic engine that delivers more than $30 million in economic impact for the city and imparts a priceless prestige factor.
Clearly, MJC executives are of a belief that the path with greater potential for success is putting all their eggs in the Laurel Park basket, if they can. Structurally, Laurel Park is better suited to the construction of luxury seating that an event like the Preakness requires (at least that's what MJC executives imply when they say Laurel Park has better “bones” than Pimlico).
Plus, there's more real estate available at Laurel Park to build an integrated entertainment complex, meaning bars, restaurants and places for music. On a grand scale, that's what Stronach Group chief operating officer Tim Ritvo, who is also the guy overseeing the MJC's Maryland strategy, helped accomplish at Gulfstream Park, the Stronach racetrack in South Florida.
For years, the bulk of the MJC's live race dates have been at Laurel Park. Pimlico's live race schedule has been pared to less than two months, May 12-June 26 this year.
So now there will be a Maryland Stadium Authority study, with its own price tag of $280,000 that will be done in two phases. The reported timeline of the study would take it deep into 2017.
One would think MJC's ambitions to chart its course have a bit more urgency. However, unlike the Preakness itself, which typically takes just a shade less than two minutes from the starting gate to the finish line, determining where exactly the race will be held in the decades to come is certain to take considerably longer.
Getting around to the horses themselves, the early spring attention for the Kentucky Derby -- and beyond for the Preakness -- is on a Kentucky-bred bay colt named Nyquist, who is named for Detroit Red Wings right wing Gustav Nyquist.
In the Florida Derby, one of the premier Derby prep races, Nyquist ran to a wire-to-wire win in a showdown with favorite Mohaymen at Gulfstream April 1.
Nyquist, now undefeated at 7-0, posted a 3 length win, as Mohaymen was eased in the stretch when the outcome was apparent and finished fourth.
Mohaymen had been the favorite in the Kentucky Derby Futures wagering and was 5-0 heading into the Florida Derby. Now, Nyquist has the distinction of being a 3-1 betting favorite in the latest Kentucky Derby Futures betting pool. The futures pool allows bettors to wager on a Derby winner on four specific occasions in the months leading up to the race.
Despite the outcome of the Florida Derby, there were some extenuating circumstances that will open the door for debate for the Kentucky Derby May 7 -- should the two colts meet again. On Florida Derby day, Gulfstream saw intermittent rain making the track a little messy, and Mohaymen drew the ninth post position (out of 10) while Nyquist came out of the No. 4 gate.
So while Nyquist finished better than eight lengths ahead of Mohaymen, the track conditions, the post positions and the fact that Mohaymen was eased in the stretch makes the results, for some observers, less than conclusive.
Issue 220: April 2016