Are Preak­ness days num­bered at Pim­lico?

Jus­tify heads to one of the world’s most fa­mous horse rac­ing tracks, which is not ag­ing grace­fully.

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Dan Wolken in Sports

BAL­TI­MORE – The track that hosts one of the most fa­mous horse races in the world is kind of a dump.

You can soften that de­scrip­tion how­ever you want, shower it with eu­phemisms such as “his­toric” and even pre­tend there’s some charm left at Pim­lico Race Course as it pre­pares to host the 143rd Preak­ness Stakes on Satur­day. But “Old Hill­top,” as they call this place, isn’t ag­ing grace­fully.

From the back of the grand­stand, whose fa­cade looks so drab and worn down even the Sovi­ets would have been em­bar­rassed to con­struct it, to the plumb­ing that broke down on Preak­ness Day in 2015 caus­ing a num­ber of bath­rooms to close down, the po­ten­tial is­sues when 140,000 peo­ple or so cram in there one day a year are end­less. When you walk around the place, what with its di­lap­i­dated con­courses and rick­ety grand­stands, you get the feel­ing Mary­land Jockey Club of­fi­cials are just cross­ing their fin­gers ev­ery year that they can ac­tu­ally pull it off with­out ma­jor in­ci­dent.

“It’s go­ing to come down to dol­lars and cents, I think. Who’s pay­ing for what.”

Sal Si­na­tra VP-GM of the Mary­land Jockey Club

“You’ve got a plant here that needs a lot of work, man,” said John Servis, who trained 2004 Preak­ness win­ner Smarty Jones and has Di­a­mond King in the race this year. “This morn­ing, we went up to the me­dia room to watch the horses train, and I got off the el­e­va­tor and there was 2 feet of wa­ter lay­ing there. They’re go­ing to have to put a lot of time and money into this place if they want to try to save it.”

Although spec­u­la­tion about the fu­ture of the Preak­ness at Pim­lico has been go­ing on for years, it seems like there are fi­nally go­ing to be some big de­ci­sions com­ing soon be­tween its owner, the Stronach Group, and the city and state of­fi­cials who will un­doubt­edly have a ma­jor say in the out­come.

With the sec­ond phase of a study by the Mary­land Sta­dium Au­thor­ity set to be made pub­lic this year, it seems like all the rel­e­vant par­ties are done kick­ing the can down the road and will de­cide soon whether the Preak­ness stays at a ren­o­vated/re­built Pim­lico or moves to Lau­rel Park, about 20 miles south of down­town Bal­ti­more, which has be­come the year- round hub for Mary­land rac­ing. Though state laws would have to be changed to move the race, it doesn’t sound like a sure thing Pim­lico will host the Preak­ness be­yond 2019.

“It’s go­ing to come down to dol­lars and cents, I think,” said Sal Si­na­tra, the vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of the Mary­land Jockey Club. “Who’s pay­ing for what and how much it costs.”

For some­one who still gets tingly watch­ing Sec­re­tariat’s ex­plo­sion around the first turn at Pim­lico or Amer­i­can Pharoah’s thun­der­ous strides through the slop in 2015, that cold re­al­ity can be hard to hear.

A lot of rac­ing his­tory was writ­ten at Pim­lico, from the fa­mous War Ad­mi­ralSe­abis­cuit match race in 1938 to the ri­valry of Af­firmed and Aly­dar.

The idea of shut­ter­ing the place where all the greats from Man O’War to Spec­tac­u­lar Bid once raced doesn’t go down easy.

“They bet­ter take 143 years of tra­di­tion and happy peo­ple be­ing able to come here and en­joy it and leave it right where it is,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won the first of his six Preak­nesses in 1980. “I’d be re­ally be dis­ap­pointed (if it moved). I’d leave it alone.”

On the other hand, haven’t we gone through the tra­di­tion-ver­sus-profit ar­gu­ment enough times in sports to un­der­stand how this usu­ally ends? If Yan­kee Sta­dium and Bos­ton Gar­den can get torn down and re­placed by build­ings that lack the char­ac­ter of their pre­de­ces­sors but have bet­ter lux­ury suites and con­ces­sion stands, why would Pim­lico be any dif­fer­ent?

The truth is, bar­ring some sort of mir­a­cle, it might be for the best.

While Stronach has poured tens of mil­lions into Lau­rel to make it a vi­able fa­cil­ity fo­cused on the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence, Pim­lico is now down to just 12 days of live rac­ing a year, all cen­tered around the Preak­ness. Stronach has made it clear it has no plans to do a full Pim­lico re­build on its own, which is un­der­stand­able given its lack of year-round use, and it would be hard to blame them for hav­ing lit­tle in­ter­est in throw­ing money at the end­less main­te­nance Band-Aids that don’t solve the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems of such an old build­ing.

“It’s al­ways a topic of con­ver­sa­tion,” Si­na­tra said. “It’s not the eight horses, it’s what are we do­ing next year or in the fu­ture? It’s a shame.”

At this point, it seems likely that one of two things will hap­pen: Ei­ther the Preak­ness will move to Lau­rel or politi- cians will come up with a way to fund a mas­sive pub­lic-pri­vate project that would rein­vent the en­tire Park Hill neigh­bor­hood with Pim­lico as a ma­jor piece, which will sound to some like an­other tax­payer-funded boon­dog­gle just to keep a horse race within the city lim­its.

Those con­sid­er­a­tions don’t re­ally regis­ter with the tra­di­tion­al­ists or the high-pro­file train­ers such as Bob Baf­fert, who shows up once a year for the Preak­ness but isn’t a reg­u­lar on the Mary­land cir­cuit and was adamant that he wants it to stay at Pim­lico.

“You hear ru­mors, well are they go­ing to move it or what­ever?” Baf­fert said. “To me, it’s mag­i­cal here. There’s so much his­tory.”

Less mag­i­cal, how­ever, is the “worn and dated ap­pear­ance” of the in­te­rior and “mul­ti­ple ex­am­ples of de­ferred main­te­nance” cited in the first phase of the Mary­land Sta­dium Au­thor­ity’s as­sess­ment last year.

If the ul­ti­mate an­swer is mov­ing to Lau­rel, it will be a big change and a tough ego blow to the city of Bal­ti­more. Lots of tra­di­tion will be lost. But in the end, the Preak­ness is the Preak­ness — and who knows, a build­ing with work­ing toi­lets might even make it bet­ter than be­fore.


Jus­tify works out at Pim­lico on Thurs­day.

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