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Maryland Jockey Club's Sal Sinatra On Preakness Future: Question Is Always Economics

May 23, 2017
When Maryland Jockey Club president Sal Sinatra agreed to appear on Glenn Clark Radio May 22, I knew he could only present one side of the issue facing the future of the Preakness. But with one statement, he actually told the other side of the story as well. 

"The question is always going to be economics," he said.

There is much still to be determined before we know for sure whether the Preakness will continue to be run at a renovated or completely rebuilt Pimlico Race Course or if the race will depart for nearby Laurel Park. But we're getting closer to finally seeing action regarding the issue. 

"I would anticipate, yeah, I would think somewhere in the fourth quarter we would have this ironed out," Sinatra said.  

For a number of Baltimoreans, a move feels like an inevitably. While the Maryland Stadium Authority has worked on studies about the possibility of upgrading or rebuilding Pimlico, a belief that the owners of the track (the Stronach Group) have simply decided that they'd prefer to run the race closer to the Washington, D.C., market has seeped in. 

Sinatra made his case for why he believes that's wrong. 

"No, we just want to have the ultimate facility," Sinatra said. "Whether it's here -- we love being in Baltimore. I don't think it's like we want to run away from Baltimore. We actually enjoy being here. We feel the history and everything when we're here. It's not like, 'Eh, screw this place, we want to get the hell out of here.' That's not -- no, I wouldn't say that.

"If that was the case, at least in my short time here -- the past three years -- we wouldn't do anything year-to-year to the place. We are trying to fix whatever is breaking, patch roofs [since] it rained the year before. We're not just saying, 'Let it fall down and let everybody feel a bad experience.' That's not what we're trying to do."

He understands why the opinion exists. 

"I think what's complicating it is the money we're investing in Laurel," Sinatra said. "And I think people are looking at it as, 'Oh, they're just fixing Laurel up to move  [the Preakness]. That's really not what's happening. It's just we have more room there for the horses, the horses are there year-round. We do run the bulk of the days there. That place is set up for a Breeders' Cup and that's what we're trying to get down there. That and bring back the D.C. International [which has been defunct since 1994]. So on our dime, we're trying to put the amenities we can in that building, which allows for us to build on it because of the way it was actually structurally built, where Pimlico doesn't allow that."

All of that sounds fine and may be true. It's easy to paint the Stronachs as the bad guys, perhaps even as carpetbaggers -- outsiders who are here only for a business interest and who are attempting to hold the city up for money by holding the most important single-day event of the calendar year hostage. At surface level, there's truth to it. 

But even those in our city who care the most about the Preakness -- whether it be because of business interests, civic pride or actual horse racing fandom -- know the Stronach Group is right. The facility is comically outdated and has been for decades. Should they be obligated to stay at one facility when a potentially quality alternative is nearby? It's hard to argue passionately against it, even if you recognize how badly such a move could hurt Baltimore. 

Some have wondered if such a move is even possible. After all, Maryland law states the race can only move out of Baltimore "as a result of disaster or emergency." So how could the Jockey Club get around that?

"I think this is why we're sitting in a room [with Gov. Larry Hogan, Mayor Catherine Pugh and the Stadium Authority)," Sinatra said. "I don't think it's ever going to come to that. I really don't. Obviously it's never -- and you can take this to the bank -- leaving Maryland. I don't think that is going to be pushed one way or another. I think it's going to be agreed upon because I think calmer heads will prevail. Whatever happens -- if it stays here, terrific. If ... it has to move, there will be something in its place in Baltimore, somehow."

Sinatra couldn't offer any more details about that last statement. A potential replacement event? A different new facility? The Stronachs footing the bill for Manny Machado's contract extension with the Orioles? 

"My message [to Baltimoreans] is that we're working to get Baltimore a premier event at a premier facility," Sinatra said. "And we hope that it's here in Baltimore. And hope it all works out. If it doesn't for some unforeseen reason, we will make sure that Baltimore has something in its place that's worth losing it."

It's a wrinkle to the saga that will require more attention in the coming months. But as Sinatra said, the entire issue comes down to one factor. Estimates for a renovated Pimlico are at $300 million. A rebuilt facility could be more like $500 million or more. While some funds could come from private money, inevitably it feels like the bulk could be a public issue. 

The notion of a ballot initiative asking city residents about public money for a horse track given the state of roads, schools, general infrastructure, etc., passing seems unrealistic. Sinatra's comments seem to provide hope. A Preakness held with few hiccups in front of a record-setting crowd would seem to give even more reason for hope. But in the end, there's just one real factor that matters:

The question is always going to be economics.