Pim­lico is a race track relic

Preak­ness host has sto­ried past, but in dire need of ren­o­va­tions

The Province - - SPORTS | HORSE RACING - ROXANNE ROBERTS

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Satur­day, Pim­lico Race Course will be per­fect.

The flow­ers will be in bloom, the sun (God will­ing) will be shin­ing and more than 100,000 fans will en­joy the Preak­ness, the sec­ond leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. In­side the Owner’s Chalet — a 3,000-square-foot tent pitched on the in­field near the fin­ish line — VIPs such as Mary­land Gov. Larry Hogan and ac­tor Kevin Spacey will eat, drink and party amid clubby leather arm­chairs, heir­loom rugs, hang­ing chan­de­liers and a mas­sive wooden bar. It’s Soho House meets Ralph Lau­ren, a glimpse of the mod­ern lux­ury that Mary­land racing could be.

At the cen­tre of it all: Belinda Stronach, the woman try­ing to make horse racing ex­cit­ing the other 364 days of the year.

She is pres­i­dent of the Stronach Group, which owns Pim­lico, Lau­rel Park and four other premier race­tracks in the United States. Her job is make the Sport of Kings cool and fun, not a dusty relic of a by­gone era.

“Horse racing is the last great legacy sport that has not mod­ern­ized,” she says. “It hasn’t evolved, hasn’t em­braced tech­nol­ogy. We haven’t rein­vested in this sport to cre­ate more own­ers and new fans.”

And Pim­lico is her prob­lem child. Once the crowds leave, ev­ery one of its 147-year-old flaws be­comes painfully ob­vi­ous. “Pim­lico is an em­bar­rass­ment: de­crepit, dys­func­tional, de­void of charm or glam­our,” opined racing ex­pert An­drew Beyer in 2015.

Ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased ear­lier this year, it’s go­ing to cost at least US$300 mil­lion to ren­o­vate the beloved old wreck. Which puts Stronach in the mid­dle of a pas­sion­ate, on­go­ing fight: Whether to keep the Preak­ness at Pim­lico, what­ever the cost, or move it to the more mod­ern Lau­rel Park race track.

Stronach, 51, has sev­eral in­for­mal ti­tles: Busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive, heiress, politi­cian, celebrity.

Her fa­ther Frank em­i­grated from Aus­tria to Canada and turned his tool-and-die skills into Magna In­ter­na­tional, a global auto-parts com­pany, and a $3-bil­lion for­tune. Stronach, the older of his two chil­dren, grew up in the busi­ness (“Dif­fer­ent horse­power,” she quips) and dropped out of col­lege af­ter a year to work in it full time. One of her proud­est mo­ments? When the board of di­rec­tors rec­om­mended to her fa­ther that she take over as chief ex­ec­u­tive in her early 30s.

But she had a po­lit­i­cal itch, too, which re­sulted in two terms in Par­lia­ment — first as a Con­ser­va­tive, then switch­ing to the Lib­er­als. Glam­orous, out­spo­ken and twice di­vorced, she’s a house­hold name in Canada with friends in high places, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and his wife So­phie Gré­goire, who fell for each other, the story goes, at a latenight party she hosted.

While Stronach fo­cused on the auto-parts busi­ness, her fa­ther pur­sued his other love: Horse racing. He not only bred thor­ough­breds (win­ning the Bel­mont Stakes, Preak­ness and Breed­ers’ Cup), but also bought race tracks in Cal­i­for­nia, Florida, Ore­gon and Mary­land.

“He al­ways had a pas­sion for horses,” Stronach says. “My mother and brother, they all had that pas­sion.”

But when the fam­ily sold the au­toparts busi­ness and be­gan suc­ces­sion plan­ning a few years ago, it was Stronach whom Frank asked to run his race tracks.

Un­like her fa­ther, she didn’t care much about go­ing to the track.

“I look at this as a busi­ness, first and fore­most,” she says. “What does this busi­ness need to mod­ern­ize and to be suc­cess­ful?”

Her an­swer: Think more like an en­ter­tain­ment com­pany. To start with, she wants the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence to be bet­ter. To at­tract younger fans, she’s look­ing at wa­ger­ing plat­forms for peo­ple who don’t know how to hand­i­cap horses and in­vest­ing in tech­nol­ogy to make bet­ting more like a video game.

Which brings us back to Pim­lico, the pride of Bal­ti­more, awash in tra­di­tion and nos­tal­gia, home of the sto­ried Preak­ness Stakes, which was born here in 1873. Al­though at least two other tracks hosted the race in its early years, it has been run at Pim­lico for the past 108.

But the track is fall­ing apart, so old that a tear­down may be smarter than a ren­o­va­tion. Not to men­tion the traf­fic jams around city streets in a neigh­bour­hood that has, to be gen­er­ous, seen bet­ter days. This year, the park has only 12 sched­uled days of racing, com­pared with 150 at Lau­rel Park, which is about 45 kilo­me­tres away.

As for that study es­ti­mat­ing the cost of a Pim­lico up­grade at $300 mil­lion, both gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and Stronach think it would re­quire some kind of pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult for us to ren­o­vate and mod­ern­ize two sta­teof-the-art sta­di­ums in Mary­land,” Stronach says. “It doesn’t mean we’re not open to the idea. It means we’d have to look at part­ner­ships with the state.”

— GETTY IMAGES FILES

Pim­lico Race Course has been the home of the Preak­ness Stakes for the last 108 years, but the de­crepit state of the Bal­ti­more track, owned by the Stronach Group, has some sug­gest­ing the race could be moved to a more mod­ern fa­cil­ity in Lau­rel, Md.

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