Rejuvenation and uncertainty in Maryland

  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.      “As host for such a large public and prominent event, Pimlico Race Course is antiquated and in need of substantial renovations,” the study stated, adding that between $248.5 and $321.7 million would be required in order for the track to become economically competitive with Churchill Downs and Belmont Park. It found no significant renovations have been made to the Pimlico clubhouse since 1960, and a portion of the grandstand is believed to be part of the old grandstand constructed in 1894.    Phase 2 of the study, expected to be released early next year, will outline a potential development strategy and identify preliminary funding sources, among other issues.    Despite Pimlico’s disrepair, business on Preakness Day continues to grow. In 2017, the Preakness set all-time records for its 142nd running when a crowd of 140,327 wagered $97,168,658, an increase of three percent over the previous year.    The race’s impact on the local and state economies was noted by the study and cited the race as a “significant economic generator.” The study published numbers compiled by the Maryland Department of Commerce Office of Research, which showed that, in 2015, direct, indirect, and induced impacts, including Preakness race-day operations, visitor spending, and state and local sales taxes, generated $18.9 million in direct spending that produced $33.7 million in total spending. That direct spending was estimated to support 480 jobs and $12.9 million in employee income.     Lawmakers were quick to voice their support for the renovation or rebuilding of Pimlico, but money was an issue.    “We’re going to do whatever is necessary to ensure the Preakness stays in Baltimore, because it creates jobs and opportunities, especially for people who live in the neighborhood,” said Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh, in a published report.     But how much Baltimore would be able to contribute remains a key question. The city is facing a $130 million budget shortfall for public school funding, while money is needed to combat an escalating crime rate. The Park Heights community bordering the track, for instance, has a violent crime rate 14 percent higher than the citywide rate.     Governor Larry Hogan, in a statement, said he wanted to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, and committed to working out a solution with all parties involved that preserves its history and tradition while making the best use of taxpayer dollars.    “We’re going to do what we can, but it has to make economic sense,” said Hogan.     Maryland delegate Sandy Rosenberg, in whose district Pimlico lies, said losing the Preakness would be a “devastating blow” for the city, and is prepared to fight to keep the race in Baltimore.     Rosenberg said he believes there is real potential for Pimlico, including development of other portions of the site. Sinai Hospital, which abuts the property, wants to expand its parking availability, and there could be interest in a hotel.     Another delegate, Pat McDonough of Baltimore County, introduced legislation in January that would create a year-round “supertrack and performance center” to replace Pimlico, but it wasn’t expected to gain much traction.    “I’m not worried about riots and guns, I’m worried about the facility itself. It’s old; I’m doing what I can,” said Sal Sinatra, president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club. “We’ve been doing roof patches and cosmetic stuff.  I can’t put a lot of money into it because I don’t know what’s going to happen when Phase 2 comes out.”    Sinatra pointed to a water pressure problem that occurred during the 2015 Preakness as an example of the unpredictability of the aging facility.    “The water is an issue, the pipes are old,” he said. “We lost water pressure in the building that day from a water main break two blocks away. It becomes frightening when you have that many people in attendance. I’m scared to death every year -- I always say, ‘Please, can we just get through this day without any catastrophes.’”    Thoroughbred industry groups are taking a wait-and-see approach with Pimlico, recognizing that the track needs a substantial capital infusion for improvements, but wanting to preserve its history as well as racing dates at two separate venues. The Stronach Group has even floated the idea of building a racing museum on-site to honor that history.    “We love Pimlico and it’s steeped in tradition, but it’s depressing to see it in its current state,” said Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “I’m a Maryland guy, and don’t want to think about Pimlico going away. But the question comes down to money, and is it worth rebuilding?”     “The Stronach Group isn’t going to do it alone when it comes to putting money into Pimlico,” said Sinatra. “It’s probably going to have to be done with very little help from us. If the state or city is unwilling or unable, will they have to raise taxes? Between pensions and education shortfalls, there’s not a lot of money to go around.”       A new day at Laurel Park       When Magna Entertainment Corp., the former name of the Stronach Group, exercised its option to acquire the remaining shares in the Maryland Jockey Club from Joseph De Francis and Karin De Francis in 2007, it took over an industry running on life support. Fast forward to 2018, and thanks to a combination of slot revenues and Stronach Group capital, business has improved markedly. In January, it was announced that total handle on races at Laurel Park and Pimlico in 2017 exceeded $600 million for the first time since 2008.     Stronach has invested more than $30 million into Laurel, which includes new luxury viewing boxes, suites, bars, concession stands, dining and event rooms, a simulcast center, a high definition infield board, and 150-stall barns. The improvements continue at a steady pace; a 72-foot by 28-foot TV was installed in March in anticipation of sports betting, while an e-gaming area is planned for the first floor.    In addition, Howard County has started a project to improve a circa-1910 train station stop at the racetrack entrance and build a residential development, retail and office space just north of the station off Whiskey Bottom Road. A parking garage for 1,100 cars is also part of the master plan, with Laurel Park able to use the garage for patrons after 10 a.m. and on weekends.    While details are still in flux, Sinatra said he’s considering moving the walking ring and paddock from their current position facing the racetrack to behind the grandstand, near the train stop.     “You’ll pull up in the train, you’ll be looking down at the walking ring,” said Sinatra. “If nothing else, it’ll be a good view for people sitting on the train. And then we’ll use this current paddock, because it’s an historic landmark, either as a winter paddock or a restaurant, but we’ll make it grand.”     The Breeders’ Cup committee has been out several times to see the renovations. Sinatra believes Laurel has a good chance at hosting the event and is hoping for 2021, 2022, or 2023 for the opportunity. A decision is expected in early May.    If the Breeders’ Cup comes to Laurel, it would demonstrate how the track handles 50,000 to 60,000 patrons without the use of the infield. Unlike Pimlico, the Laurel infield is unsuitable as a location for a large crowd, as nearly half of it contains a small lake.     With every improvement to Laurel, Sinatra said fans have asked for the revival of the Washington DC International, which saw its first running at Laurel in 1952 and attracted the best turf horses in the world. It was discontinued in 1994 after the Breeders’ Cup began offering its turf events.    Maryland delegate Jay Walker has introduced a bill that would take $500,000 from lottery revenues to be used to bring back the race as the Maryland International, as well as $500,000 for a bonus award program for Maryland-bred or Maryland-sired horses running in the Preakness Stakes. Sinatra said an amended version of the bill is likely to pass.     While the details of the Preakness bonus have yet to be ironed out, Sinatra said it may attract one or two additional runners for the Preakness field.     As for relocating the Preakness, Maryland law passed in 1987 states that the Preakness cannot be moved to another track in the state except in the case of “a disaster or emergency.” In that case, the law would also need to be changed by the Maryland General Assembly. Stronach Group officials have talked about moving the race to Laurel Park, but any such talk has been met with resistance by elected officials in Baltimore and the state. And Sinatra said that management is not considering moving the race to its out-of-state properties, like Gulfstream Park or Santa Anita.    “The people of Baltimore lost the Colts in the middle of the night and that’s what they fear,” he said. “Whether they bet a horse or not, it doesn’t matter, because they know Pimlico, Preakness, and want to save it and make sure it’s healthy. If the Preakness has to leave Pimlico, we want to make sure nobody loses. We’ve told them a thousand times over, it’s never going to leave Maryland.”

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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