Pimlico is a race track relic
Preakness host has storied past, but in dire need of renovations
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.”
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.