There was little clarity on the future of the Preakness Stakes as Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, held his annual press conference during Preakness Day festivities at Pimlico Race Course May 18.
The Stronach Group has made it no secret that it wants to move the race from its longtime home at deteriorating Pimlico Race Course to Laurel Park, about 25 minutes south of the city.
Meanwhile, the city of Baltimore has filed a lawsuit seeking ownership of both Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes through condemnation.
The Stronach Group, a Canada-based company, owns the Maryland Jockey Club, which includes Pimlico, Laurel, and the Preakness, as well as other racetracks including Santa Anita Park in California and Gulfstream Park in Florida.
Asked about the prospects of a move to Laurel Park, Ritvo said: "We're focused on today and we continue to work with the city and the state on options to have an experience the people deserve for a great race like this. Although nothing is final until it’s final, we continue to work through what solutions we can come up with. It makes it a little harder with the pressing lawsuit from the city, which we feel has no merit, but we have to wait either until that’s played out or dropped before were can really start negotiating to see what the bigger picture looks like."
The Stronach Group envisions a "super track" at Laurel that would be part of a larger project that includes residential, retail and commercial components.
In the last Maryland General Assembly session, The Stronach Group’s bid for $120 million in funding from the state to help in the development of Laurel Park failed.
Regarding the stalemate among The Stronach Group, the city and state, Ritvo said, "If it doesn't move forward at all, that's the worst, right? It's status quo and I don't think anyone wants that."
Race fans are feeling the ill effects of "the status quo." Nearly 7,000 seats at Pimlico were shut down recently because the MJC felt they should not be used. On top of that, plumbing and bathroom problems plagued both Preakness Day and Blacked-Eyed Susan Day customers.
"It gets tougher every year to give the experience the customers deserve,” Ritvo said. "A pipe broke [this year] about two days before [Preakness weekend]. We had a pipe break a few years ago. We go in and repair it and what [the engineers] tell me, it takes so much time for the pressure to build up. ... It's just old infrastructure. We do everything we can to keep it up to the level we can."
Despite closing thousands of seats, Ritvo said Pimlico is safe.
"The portion we closed down, we feel it wasn’t worth taking the risk," he said.
The MJC has faced criticism that it doesn’t spend enough of the money it receives from casino slots funds on Pimlico, instead funneling most of it to Laurel.
"We spend millions every year on the [Pimlico] facility and, of course, upgrades for the [Preakness] are different," he said. "Day-to-day operations to keep it running. Plumbing, electricity, you could spend millions and never make a dent in the stuff that are there."
A Maryland Stadium Authority report that explored the prospect of tearing down Pimlico and building a new race course on Northern Parkway estimated the cost at more than $420 million.
There's no indication of where that money would come from.
Ritvo was also pressed on the issue of horse safety.
Stronach-owned Santa Anita Park has seen two dozen horse deaths since December. The most recent death, a 3-year-old gelding named Commander Coil, occurred May 17.
Also on Friday, still another horse, Congrats Gal, died at Pimlico on Black-Eyed Susan Day following a race.
In California, The Stronach Group has curtailed the use of drugs on horses.
"We're on top of it. ... It's critical to us," Ritvo said. "We understand the position we're in and the industry is in. We take everything very seriously."
Photo Credit: Bill Ordine/PressBox