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What Does The Maryland Stadium Authority's Pimlico Study Mean?

December 17, 2018
As with much in life, reaction to the recently released Maryland Stadium Authority study regarding the future of Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course depends on one's point-of-view.

Advocates for having a racetrack named Pimlico on Northern Parkway in order to keep the Preakness Stakes in the city proper will see the stadium authority's study as a plausible blueprint.

Meanwhile, dispassionate skeptics will judge some of the study as an exercise in building castles in the sky, and a less sentimental reading of its findings reinforces the notion that the Preakness probably should be moved to Maryland's other race track, Laurel Park.

In fairness, the study is not meant to lobby on behalf of a decision either way. In fact, the study plainly declares: "… this is a hypothetical, conceptual analysis of potential uses that could occur, not a feasibility study of what will occur."

So, let's look at some of the study's findings.

Pimlico, the hallowed setting for the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown that has stood since 1870, can be torn down and a new facility rebuilt for $424 million. Let's stop right here for a dose of reality.

The study does not address who will provide any of that money. The track and the Preakness are ultimately owned by The Stronach Group, the Canada-based parent of the Maryland Jockey Club. Stronach also owns the thoroughbred track Laurel Park, which is about 20 miles south of Baltimore, and the Rosecroft harness track in Prince George's County.

But more on who pays for what later.

Regardless of where the bill lands, the $424 million is described in the study as "order of magnitude cost for minimum capital improvements" -- the operative word being "minimum". 

That price tag is also just for the basic elements of a new Pimlico and does not account for some of the more attention-grabbing additional features mentioned in the study, such as a hotel, a supermarket, health services buildings and commercial and residential buildings, which are integral to the larger concept.

In other words, $424 million is the floor number. That figure can and most likely will go up.

It's also important to note that the study concentrates on a single day, the Preakness (being held May 18 in 2019), and does not address prospects for a long racing session for Pimlico. Next year, the Pimlico meet will be just 12 days.

The knockdown of old Pimlico and the rebuild of new Pimlico will take three years.

Spectator capacity in a new Pimlico will shrink to 75,000 (Preakness attendance in recent years has been in the 130,000-140,000 range). The reduction in onsite spectators will be in the infield. As the infield swarm disappears, high-end premium seating will increase.

One conceptualized interpretation for the new Pimlico (there are three options in the study) leans on something called the "Palio". This is an outdoor plaza where concerts and festivals can be held and would serve as the saddling paddock for the Preakness Stakes. It draws inspiration from the Palio di Siena horse races in Siena, Italy. The Palio concept clearly is the one favored by the study's authors.

The study also advances the position that the 110-acre track site could include more than a race track and those enhancements would give new Pimlico year-around functionality. Suggestions in the study include a hotel, a supermarket, a parking structure, residential buildings and commercial mixed-use elements.

Work on a new Pimlico would begin with a knockdown in 2021 and end in 2024. One timeline has the Preakness moved to another location for two years (one presumes Laurel); still another timeline scenario has the Preakness being held at Pimlico continuously through construction -- a breathtaking and more costly proposition.

But as intriguing as the study is in its possibilities for preserving a Pimlico presence in Baltimore, far more sobering are the number of key things the study does not address.

As already mentioned, at the top of that list: Who pays for a new Pimlico?

The study was not intended to address that all-important question.

The obvious candidates are the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and The Stronach Group.

Baltimore's chronic financial woes are understood. It's hard to imagine the city can be a major financial contributor but if it were, it may have to be in some package of a bond offering and tax relief. That's purely a guess.

The Stronach Group, a privately held company, is dealing with being a mainstay in the struggling horse racing industry, and the company has already poured millions into refurbishing Laurel Park.

That leaves the state of Maryland. It remains to be seen what the appetite is in the General Assembly for spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer money to rebuild Pimlico, especially when The Stronach Group appears willing to soldier on with work at Laurel largely on its own, along with money already earmarked for track improvements from casino slots.

"There's been big changes in Annapolis since the days when the state supported major investments in sports stadiums and arenas in Baltimore," said Alan Foreman, counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "You're going to have new, younger, perhaps more progressive members of the General Assembly who may not be familiar with the racing industry."

And, Foreman points out, if the casino slots money is diverted to help finance the Pimlico rebuild, what happens to Laurel where the majority of horse racing already takes place?

The Stronach Group has been reserved, polite and has avoided being discouraging about the effort to preserve a Pimlico presence and keep the Preakness in the city despite the company's past stated preference to move the big race to Laurel.

However, a point needs to be made. The study's main goal was about a rebuild of a new facility that could host a sports spectacle on the third Saturday in May.

The statement by Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, reflects a broader, longer-range mindset.

"A successful and viable future for Maryland Racing requires an industry encompassing and thoughtful capital plan that looks beyond one weekend of celebration to achieving great success year-round," Stronach said in a statement when the study was released.

She urges political and horse industry stakeholders "to tackle during the upcoming legislative session the important questions surrounding not only the financial requirements for a modern stadium that can host the Preakness Stakes but how to best support the needs of the Thoroughbred industry as a whole, sustainable year-round horse racing and training, an enhanced guest experience and greater fan engagement in Maryland."

As part of the Pimlico study, there is a vision of grand plans impacting the community at large. That vision includes hotels, a supermarket sorely needed in that part of the city, health services buildings and residential buildings.

However, all that remains highly speculative. There are no hotel builders, no supermarket chains, no real estate developers identified who are willing to spend hundreds of millions to do any of that.

The stadium authority has done its best to present the facts as best as it could and to the extent it was able regarding building a new Pimlico Race Course.

Now, political leaders have to seriously discuss the future of racing in Maryland as well as the neighborhood surrounding Pimlico and do it with vision and goals that are grounded in reality.

Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox