Are Preakness days numbered at Pimlico?
Justify heads to one of the world’s most famous horse racing tracks, which is not aging gracefully.
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.