Pim­lico to close off over 6,600 seats

As Preak­ness nears, his­toric sec­tion ‘no longer suitable’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Doug Dono­van

The last re­main­ing his­toric sec­tion of Pim­lico Race Course is be­ing shut down a month be­fore the Preak­ness Stakes after an en­gi­neer­ing firm de­ter­mined that 6,670 seats in the Old Grand­stand’s open-air sec­tion are “no longer suitable to sus­tain that level of load bear­ing weight.”

The Mary­land Jockey Club has sched­uled a news con­fer­ence for Mon­day to an­nounce that the 125-year-old, north­ern­most sec­tion of seat­ing will not be ac­ces­si­ble to the tens of thou­sands of horse rac­ing fans set to flood Baltimore in mid-May for Black Eyed Su­san Day and the 144th run­ning of the Preak­ness.

The 6,670 seats rep­re­sent nearly 47% of the ap­prox­i­mately 14,000 seats in Pim­lico’s tra­di­tional struc­tures — the Club­house, Main Grand­stand, Old Grand­stand and Sports Palace — and make up about 17.5% of the over­all seated ca­pac­ity of nearly 38,000 peo­ple at Old Hill­top, ac­cord­ing to Pim­lico’s web­site. An ad­di­tional 82,000 peo­ple are es­ti­mated to fit in stand­ing-room and in­field ar­eas.

“As the safety and se­cu­rity of all guests and em­ploy­ees at Pim­lico is para­mount, the Mary­land Jockey Club made the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to close that sec­tion of the grand­stand for this year’s Preak­ness Stakes,” the Mary­land Jockey Club said in a state­ment.

The tim­ber-and-steel Old Grand­stand that en­velops the rick­ety sta­dium seats was re­cently called “the only tie back to the his­tory of the Old Hill­top days” in a Mary­land Sta­dium Author­ity study that also bluntly stated that Pim­lico had “reached the end of its use­ful life.”

The an­nounce­ment comes just days after Baltimore-area law­mak­ers in the Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly de­feated an ef­fort by the Stronach Group, which owns the jockey club, to pass leg­is­la­tion that would have ac­cel­er­ated its plans to ren­o­vate Lau­rel Park and a nearby Bowie fa­cil­ity as a “su­per­track” that could host the Preak­ness.

The plan sparked out­rage from Baltimore elected of­fi­cials, who saw the com­pany’s ef­fort as a clear in­di­ca­tion that Stronach wants to move the Preak­ness out of Pim­lico and run it in Lau­rel. The Baltimore Sun re­ported last month that the com­pany had spent most of its state-sub­si­dized ren­o­va­tion funds on Lau­rel in­stead of Pim­lico — news that up­set city law­mak­ers.

The com­pany and law­mak­ers from the Lau­rel area had been pushing leg­is­la­tion in the Gen­eral Assem­bly that would have en­abled the Mary­land Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Corp., or MEDCO, to is­sue bonds worth $120 mil­lion to finance $80 mil­lion in im­prove­ments to Lau­rel and $40 mil­lion for a Bowie train­ing cen­ter.

Stronach wants to con­sol­i­date its op­er­a­tions at Lau­rel and par­tic­i­pate in a re­de­vel­op­ment of Pim­lico.

Del. Nick Mosby, a Baltimore Demo­crat who led much of the re­sis­tance to Stronach’s plans in An­napo­lis, re­sponded Satur­day to the clo­sures by ex­press­ing frus­tra­tion on Twit­ter with the com­pany’s fa­voritism for Lau­rel. He said the ur­gent safety con­cerns were an­other rea­son “why Pim­lico should have been in­cluded in the MEDCO fund­ing bill.”

“In the in­terim,” Mosby wrote, “good faith dis­cus­sions must com­mence. The Preak­ness be­longs at Old Hill­top!”

Stronach of­fi­cials made no men­tion of the leg­is­la­tion in a state­ment ob­tained by The Sun.

Bill Hecht, chief ex­ec­u­tive of U.S. real es­tate for the Stronach Group, said the de­ci­sion was “deeply dis­ap­point­ing” to the com­pany, which will suf­fer a blow to a “peak mo­ment in time when we gen­er­ate the most amount of in­come for the in­dus­try.”

“As the safety and se­cu­rity is para­mount to our guests and em­ploy­ees, this po­si­tion to forego in­come should in no way be in­ter­preted as any­thing other than that,” Hecht said.

The com­pany said rac­ing fans who have al­ready pur­chased tick­ets in the Old Grand­stand for the May 18 Preak­ness and May 17 Black Eyed Su­san Day have un­til May 1 to ex­change them for new seats. Fans can call 877-206-8042 to ex­change the tick­ets, which cost from $195 to $245, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous ticket web­sites.

Dis­par­i­ties in the al­lo­ca­tion of funds be­tween Pim­lico and Lau­rel helped Baltimore-area law­mak­ers gal­va­nize op­po­si­tion to Stronach’s plan in An­napo­lis to fun­nel even more state fund­ing to Lau­rel.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Sun of Stronach Group’s in­vest­ments into the two tracks showed that the com­pany has fa­vored Lau­rel for years as elected of­fi­cials rarely raised con­cerns about the dis­par­ity. From 2011 to 2018, Stronach spent 80% of $112 mil­lion in state grants, sub­si­dized sup­port from the horse in­dus­try and its own cash at Lau­rel Park. The re­main­der, $23 mil­lion, went to in­fras­truc­ture repairs at Pim­lico dur­ing that pe­riod.

The bulk of the money, $45 mil­lion, came from Mary­land’s slots-funded Race­track Fa­cil­i­ties Re­newal pro­gram over the past five years. Roughly 87% of those funds went to Lau­rel, The Sun’s re­view of records found. Stronach in­vested an ad­di­tional $3 mil­lion of its money for ad­di­tional im­prove­ments at Lau­rel, the com­pany said.

The re­port com­mis­sioned by the Mary­land Sta­dium Author­ity stated that ren­o­vat­ing the Old Grand­stand was es­ti­mated to cost about $20 mil­lion but is “con­sid­ered crit­i­cal to mod­ern­iz­ing and en­hanc­ing the guest ex­pe­ri­ence at Pim­lico.”

The clos­ing of the seats will have a significan­t im­pact on a busi­ness that just re­ported to the Mary­land Rac­ing Com­mis­sion that its op­er­a­tions at Pim­lico and Lau­rel are los­ing money at a faster rate than the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to Stronach’s 2018 fi­nan­cial state­ments.

Com­bined op­er­at­ing losses for Pim­lico and Lau­rel Park were re­ported to the state as $15 mil­lion in 2018, a 66.6% in­crease over the nearly $9 mil­lion com­bined loss in the prior year. Rev­enue at Lau­rel Park, which held 156 rac­ing days last year, grew nearly 7% last year to $39.5 mil­lion while ex­penses jumped 9% to $47 mil­lion. At Pim­lico, which hosted just 12 rac­ing days in 2018, ex­penses were up 11% to $33.5 mil­lion while rev­enue de­clined 3.6% to $26.5 mil­lion — driven pri­mar­ily by the Preak­ness and Black Eyed Su­san.

Lau­rel’s to­tal losses last year were off­set by a $5.2 mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion from as­so­ci­a­tions of horse own­ers and breed­ers that re­ceive a share of state slot ma­chine rev­enue. Pim­lico re­ceived noth­ing from the groups.

The state’s Race­track Fa­cil­i­ties Re­newal fund pro­vided $5.2 mil­lion to Lau­rel last year to finance $10.4 mil­lion in in­fras­truc­ture ren­o­va­tions that were evenly fi­nanced by Stronach. Pim­lico re­ceived $1.5 mil­lion from the ren­o­va­tion fund last year, up from just $32,000 in 2017.


The north­ern­most sec­tion of seat­ing at Pim­lico Race Course will be closed off to race fans for the up­com­ing Preak­ness.

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