By Linda Dougherty
One may be in its death throes. The other is getting a new lease on life. Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, Maryland’s two major racetracks, are a study in contrasts.
Laurel Park, located near the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia and bustling Washington, D.C., has received a considerable facelift in the last two years by its owner, the Stronach Group. It’s come with an eye towards hosting future major events, including the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, and possibly the Preakness Stakes, second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.
While Laurel, which opened in 1911, has a long history, it is Pimlico, which opened in 1870 and is the nation’s second-oldest racetrack behind only Saratoga, that holds a special place in the annals of the sport. Pimlico not only hosts the Preakness, set this year for May 19, but has been the scene of such memorable events as the celebrated match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938. And despite Pimlico being surrounded by a distressed Baltimore neighborhood, the Preakness is an economic boon to both the city and state.
But for more than a few years, as attention shifts to Baltimore soon after the dust settles from the Kentucky Derby, questions have arisen as to the future of Pimlico, which has often been described as decrepit, run down, and completely devoid of the charm that is associated with Churchill Downs, or the enormous wonder of Belmont Park.
Those questions have become more pointed recently with the reduction of live racing dates at Pimlico, the shift of those dates to Laurel Park, and the absence of any serious renovations to Pimlico by the Stronach Group.
The release last year of Phase 1 of a two-phase study of Pimlico by the Maryland Stadium Authority concluded that it will require an enormous amount of money for either extensive improvements or a complete rebuilding, and has many wondering how much longer the track will remain.
The Stronach Group has indicated it is not prepared to make a major investment in Pimlico for what amounts to just a dozen racing dates per year without financial help from the city and state. The company’s focus on improvements to Laurel Park are part of a plan to land the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, which it hopes to be awarded in the next few years after submitting a formal bid earlier this winter. If Laurel is successful in handling a large crowd with the attendant festivities, the Breeders’ Cup could be a precursor towards it being the new home of the Preakness Stakes, though it’s not expected to happen without a fight.
A Glorious Past, An Uncertain Future
The 90-page Phase 1 Stadium Authority study, published February 24, 2017, examined the current condition of Pimlico, its potential future use, and the estimated costs for renovation or rebuilding.
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August - October 2018, issue 49 (PRINT)
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