Pimlico revamp to revive Preakness peak period


Pimlico Race Course ready for major upgrade Image: Pimlico Race Course, Maryland GovPics, CC BY 2.0

Some of the fastest horses in the world will follow an age-old May ritual on May 18th when they vie to win the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland (US). They’ll speed through the 9 1/2 furlongs seeking glory in the form of the Triple Crown’s second jewel.

‘THE BALTIMORE SUN’ stated that the horses are perpetually three years old. Pimlico is perpetually one year older.

The Pimlico Race Course is a thoroughbred horse racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland (US) most famous for hosting the Preakness Stakes. Its name is derived from the 1660s when the English settlers named the area where the facility currently stands in honor of Olde Ben Pimlico’s Tavern in London (a famous alehouse or tea garden in Hoxton, London (UK) in the 17th century).

The Preakness Stakes is an American thoroughbred horse race held annually on Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland (US). The Preakness Stakes is a Grade I race run over a distance of 1+3⁄16 miles on dirt. Colts (a young male horse that is usually under four years old) and geldings (male horse) carry 126 pounds, fillies (a young female horse, especially one less than four years old) 121 pounds.

Triple Crown, in American horse racing, championship attributed to a three-year-old Thoroughbred that in a single season wins the Kentucky Derby (an American Grade I stakes race run at the 165,000-capacity Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky), the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes (an American Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds run at the 100,000-capacity Belmont Park in Elmont, New York).

‘THE BALTIMORE SUN’ further stated that the historic racetrack has become increasingly dilapidated, hanging by a thread in a struggling industry even as its Triple Crown contemporaries – the Churchill Downs in Kentucky and the Belmont Park in New York – receive hundreds of millions of dollars worth of upgrades. A 1993 report detailed the track’s “deterioration”, a master plan released by the City of Baltimore in 2006 sought to improve the “underutilized site”, and over the decades there have been various blueprints, most recently one launched in 2020, to improve the facility.

But this year, with just-dried ink from a newly approved law paving the way for $400 million in State funds to renovate the track and build a training track elsewhere, the horse racing backers hope they’ve finally bet on the winning ticket after a long string of losses.

Greg Cross, Chair of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, said that when he first discussed plans to upgrade Pimlico with leaders in Park Heights, the neighborhood where the track is located, he encountered skepticism. Everything he’d been saying, they had heard before.

The Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority was established in 2023 to position Maryland as a best-in-class location for thoroughbred horse racing. The Authority’s mission includes reimagining Maryland’s horse-racing infrastructure to maximize the value and impact of the State facilities investments and establishing the most effective racing operating model to align the needs of the patrons, horsemen, breeders, community residents, and others.

Some liken efforts to The Boy Who Cried Wolf (‘to give a false alarm’). Senator President Bill Ferguson, a South Baltimore Democrat who ultimately backed the Bill, compared it to ‘Lucy and the football’ from the comic strip ‘Peanuts’ (faith in oneself). The condemned Old Grandstand was supposed to be knocked down in 2022, according to demands from legislation. It’s still there, though, and will sit empty on May 18th during the 149th Preakness.

But proponents say the newest plan will be the one to cross the finish line.

Averred Cross shortly after the Governor of Maryland Wes Moore signed the Bill into law, “This time, it’s going to happen. By early 2025, the Old Grandstand and some old barns will be demolished. That would mark the first concrete progress in a painfully fraught process.

Maintained Alan Foreman, longtime General Counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a Member of the racing authority, “There’s a lot of skepticism right now. I get it all the time: ‘Are they really doing it?’ Because people have seen this movie before. The difference is we have cleared the impediments. They’ve all been cleared, and we are now in full throttle.”

But as the State’s industry prepares for a badly needed facelift to its facilities, the officials say one is also needed for its signature event, the Preakness, which has gone from a revenue driver to a money loser in recent years. Critics say the focus has shifted too much toward big-name entertainers, while the race suffers as the middle child in a Triple Crown calendar that no longer suits many modern trainers.

Foreman predicted swift changes to the Preakness once a State-created nonprofit takes over, with a focus on reconnecting the race to its Maryland heritage – “We are so far from that now. The people that I used to see, the core Maryland customer, [aren’t] there anymore with raised ticket prices, challenges with the venue, changes to the venue. It’s just not something that seems to interest people the way it used to, and that’s something we need to bring back. I expect it to be a vastly different event when we take over in 2027.”

A $400 million plan

The current renovation plan for Pimlico evolved from a 2020 law that envisioned improvements to both Pimlico and the Anne Arundel County’s (county in Maryland) Laurel Park (racecourse in Maryland). But the momentum was stalled by the tax burdens, dire structural issues at Laurel and prolonged negotiations between The Stronach Group, the Canadian company that has long owned the tracks, and the local officials.

Aurora (Canada)-based The Stronach Group, doing business as 1/ST, is an entertainment and real estate company in North America with Thoroughbred horse racing and pari-mutuel (a system of betting in which those who have bet on the winners of a race share in the total amount wagered less a percentage for the management) wagering at the core.

The racing authority, created in 2023, mapped out a plan that resulted in this year’s Bill. Under the new plan, Stronach, also known as 1/ST Racing, will give Pimlico to the State but continue to own the Laurel Park, which will shut down racing operations in the coming years, leaving Maryland with a single one-mile track. The number of race days in Maryland will decrease from about 175 to 140.

A nonprofit created by the racing authority will take control of racing in the State from Stronach, which will license to the nonprofit the rights to use the Preakness name. The nonprofit is also expected to use the name ‘Maryland Jockey Club’, the storied brand that dates to 1743 under which Stronach currently operates.

The nonprofit will pay $3 million annually for those Preakness rights, plus two percent of the total money wagered over Preakness weekend. In recent years, the gross handle has been about $100 million, meaning the nonprofit would likely pay Stronach about $5 million annually.

Stronach has lost millions annually on racing in the State, but backers of the plan say that, with a new facility and several changes, the nonprofit will erase those losses.

Commented Cross, “The plan for the nonprofit is to make money even though it’s a not-for-profit so we can invest it back in the neighborhood and so that we can plow it back into the industry.”

Since 2010, Maryland’s racing industry has benefited from $843 million in State revenue generated from slot machines. Some of that continued slot revenue will help finance the $400 million in bonds -which will be paid off in $17-million-a-year increments for decades -as well as revenue generated by the lottery, which would otherwise go to the State’s general fund.

In addition to a renovated Pimlico, the Bill will fund the construction of a new training track in Bowie (City in Maryland), Woodbine (rural town in Maryland) or Aberdeen (City in Maryland). A site will be picked in the next three months.

Parts of Pimlico will be demolished before next year’s Preakness, the 150th running of the event, with renovation efforts expected to begin in full force in Summer 2025. The Preakness will be run at Laurel Park in 2026 while Pimlico is under construction, and is expected to return in 2027.

A refurbished Pimlico is expected to benefit the Park Heights neighborhood with ongoing affordable housing initiatives and plans for a new public library.

Only two weeks of rest

The plan to renovate Pimlico might never have moved forward if not for the Preakness’ status as one of Maryland’s defining events. But race organizers have struggled to attract compelling fields in recent years, with fewer trainers willing to run their Kentucky Derby horses after just two weeks of rest.

Plenty of people in racing, including Maryland officials, have advocated stretching out the Triple Crown schedule to fit modern training practices, but New York officials have seemed disinclined to move the Belmont from its traditional date three weeks after the Preakness, and there’s no overarching authority to force their hand.

The television audience on NBC declined to 5.1 million viewers for the segment including the Preakness last year, down from 5.3 million the previous year, with no Derby winner running.

Trainers say the Preakness still carries classic prestige, not to mention a purse increased to $2 million this year.

‘Make Preakness great again’

A renovated Pimlico could mean a rejuvenated Preakness.

The Preakness used to be a lucrative event, generating enough profit to sustain the industry the rest of the year, Foreman said, but it has lost money in recent years.

Attendance at the marquee race regularly exceeded 100,000 in the 2010s, but problems with the Pimlico facility have multiplied in recent years, with bathrooms failing, the elevator not working and the oldest section of the grandstand closed to the public. Last year, 65,000 attended Pimlico over the two-day weekend. It was nearly triple that in 2019.

Preliminary designs for the new Pimlico would host 79,000, not including the infield – which can hold tens of thousands – meaning the venue could easily host more than 100,000 people if there is the appetite for it.

Concluded Marc Broady, Executive Director of the racing authority, “We want to make Preakness great again. It’s that simple.”

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