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Will the Preakness Stay in Baltimore? Place Your Bets

30 May, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Aging Facility, Cost of Repairs, May Drive Event Elsewhere After 2019

While the majority of the horse-racing public’s big concern is whether Justify will win the Belmont Stakes, resulting in a Triple Crown, back in Baltimore, they have something else entirely to worry about: namely, whether Baltimore will continue hosting the Preakness. And while many in Maryland consider the run for the black-eyed Susans as much a rite of spring as the watching the Orioles take the field, the track that hosts the event, Pimlico Race Course, is starting to look more and more like a dark horse as a candidate in the years to come.

The aging facility (it’s just shy of its 150th anniversary) is sorely lacking in amenities and all indicators are that it would be more efficient to simply tear it down and rebuild than it would be to continue to do Band-Aid fixes on it.

And that’s something the Stronach Group, which owns the facility, won’t pay for – which raises the possibility of the Preakness Stakes moving away, something that would be devastating to Baltimore. (According to CityBizList, the 2017 race generated nearly $40 million in total economic impact, which includes everything from hotels and transportation to restaurants and retail.)

But a big overhaul makes that number look like chump change. The initial results of a study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority concluded it would cost $250 million to $320 million to renovate Pimlico, which is located in the Northwest quadrant of Baltimore, in an already economically depressed area. (The critical second phase of the study is due to be released near the end of this year.)

According to an article in The Baltimore Sun, Stronach has no intention of spending that money. One possible solution would be to move the race to another property in Maryland, Laurel Park, located approximately mid-point between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  (Stronach owns that track as well.)

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and other city officials are making a concerted effort to keep the Preakness at Pimlico. The track in Northwest Baltimore hosted the inaugural Preakness Stakes in 1873, and has hosted every running since 1909. But Stronach says that after 2019, all bets are off.

According to the article in the Sun, Stronach hopes that new amenities put in place for the 2018 running — including elevated chalets with glass walls and front porches for VIP guests — will help sell guests on coming back next year. The group wants the city to invest in the facility, much the way it invested in both Camden Yards — which the Orioles lease — and M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens.

“At the end of the year we’ll find out what the study says and then we’ll have to be able to see the appetite of the city and state for whether the investment makes sense to keep it at Old Hilltop or move it to the Laurel location,” Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of Stronach’s racing division, told reporters. “The nice thing right now is all parties interested know that kicking the can down the road doesn’t work anymore, that sooner or later — whether it’s another year or two years or five years — that something has to be done because we should be looking at the stewardship of the Preakness.”

The second phase of the stadium authority study is exploring such year-round development possibilities for the site. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year — in time for the next Maryland General Assembly session, which begins in January.

But there isn’t a clear-cut answer as to whether the state will invest in Pimlico the way it has in baseball and football.

“Ultimately it may come down to outside investment,” Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for the Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE, noted to the Sun. “I think it would be difficult to ask taxpayers to put money behind it. It’s a significant cost.”

But Saler said it would be hard to imagine the Preakness anywhere else.

“There are only so many sports traditions in Baltimore, and that is one of them,” he said.

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