BALTIMORE – Pimlico Race Course is all gussied up again this week, ready to host the Preakness on a day that will enable the 148-year-old track to survive another year.
Old Hilltop is showing its age, however, and it will cost more than a quarter-billion dollars to make it right. So while the group that owns and operates Pimlico promises the middle jewel of the Triple Crown will stay put through next year, there’s a chance that the 145th running of the Preakness in 2020 will be held within the state at newer, fresher Laurel Park.
Much depends on an ongoing study by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The initial phase of the investigation determined that it would cost between $250 million and $320 million to renovate Pimlico. The second phase of the study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“By then, we should know what the future holds,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park.
Pimlico – and the Stronach Group – could get a shot in the arm from the Supreme Court ruling Monday that would allow states to legalize sports betting.
“We are already looking at opportunities where we can put sports books in our properties in Maryland,” Ritvo said. “It’s an added amenity for a customer at an already existing gambling establishment.”
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas believes that’s a viable option.
“You might be surprised who would show up here to bet sports,” the 82-year-old Lukas said while sitting outside the stakes barn on Tuesday. “In Maryland, if sports betting and horse racing can hold hands on an agreement on a contract, this thing might turn around a little bit.”
But if sports betting is legalized in Maryland, it will take a while – possibly even too long to address Pimlico’s needs. Maryland would need to approve a state constitutional amendment and legislators balked at passing a bill this year to put it on the ballot in November.
That stalemate was largely due to disagreements about who should be allowed to have sports betting – casinos and/or horse racing tracks. There was also concern that not a huge amount of money was at stake in the short term.
So, unless legislators hold a special session between now and November to put it on the ballot – legalized sports betting won’t happen in Maryland until at least 2020.
Lukas, who has won the Preakness six times and has two entrants in Saturday’s race, shook his head when asked about the prospect of moving the race.
“I would be really, really disappointed if they did,” Lukas said. “This is an awfully good facility for that day. I know the grandstand is old and everything, but everybody has a good time here. It’s a fixture in Baltimore, that’s for sure.”
The Preakness drew a record crowd of 140,327 last year, and the Black-Eyed Susan card one day earlier attracted 50,339.
But on most days, the horses at Pimlico run before a smattering of fans. This year’s Preakness is the highlight of a meager 12-day meet of live racing.
Back in its heyday, Pimlico hosted many of the sport’s most memorable races: Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral in 1938; Man o’ War’s debut in 1920 with a stunning win over Upset; and Secretariat’s last-to-first victory during his Triple Crown run in 1973.
But that was a long time ago.
There may not be enough paint, concrete and bricks to give Pimlico the makeover it sorely needs. Though work crews have found a way to make the track presentable every year on the third Saturday in May, the best course of action just might be to tear it down and build it over from the ground up.
“What we’re doing is under-serving the customer at the Preakness in the venue we’re in right now,” Ritvo said. “One way or another, we either need a new facility that can accommodate such a special event, or we need to move it eventually. Not because it’s a money-grab for the Stronach Group. What it is about is creating an environment for year-round racing.”
A few years ago, Pimlico hosted a live card on Kentucky Derby day, but more people showed up at Laurel to bet on simulcast races, Ritvo noted.
“Most Fortune 500 companies would run the Preakness for two days and leave, say it’s a great event and it’s profitable,” Ritvo said. “But being the stewards of this event, we have to look at what it’s going to be 100 years down the road.”
Toward that end, the Stronach Group is looking at Laurel Park – located 29 miles south of Pimlico – as a viable option.
“We’ve had discussions of what it would be like at Laurel, but not in detail,” Ritvo said. “There are lots of options at Laurel. Our focus at Laurel was to continue to improve the facility for year-round racing, and then also to host a Breeders’ Cup there very soon.”
Under state law, the race can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”
Ritvo knows the law, and he isn’t looking to create issues.
“The truth of the matter is, we don’t want to be disruptive or fight with anyone,” he said. “The Preakness is always going to be a Maryland event. And if Laurel someday is a better location, more profitable and makes more sense and works, we hope the state would see that and understand it.
“There’s going to be a large investment needed to rebuild Pimlico. We’re not asking for them to do that, but if they want to do that and have that in the core of their heart, then we’re willing to listen.”
Associated Press Writer Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland contributed to this report.