Will Baltimore Pony Up the Money for a Track Rehab or Will the Preakness Move?
6 Mar, 2019By: Mary Helen Sprecher
In the early days of 2019, Baltimore was feeling the angst over the possibility that the Preakness Stakes might move from its longtime home, Pimlico Race Course – and never return.
The potential for the city to lose out on perhaps its biggest one-day money maker of the year (studies have shown an economic impact of between $30 million and $40 million) was enough to send shockwaves of fear through the already economically distressed community of Park Heights, where the race track is located.
Unfortunately, the track has seen better days and a Maryland Stadium Authority study offers a concept for demolishing Pimlico Race Course and rebuilding it at a cost of $424 million. The problem: the track’s owners, the Canada-based Stronach Group, don’t want to pony up the money. If the city wants to keep the race, they say, the city can foot the bill. The city is refusing to do so, but is also citing a law, passed decades ago, that requires the Preakness to be held in Baltimore.
According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, the issue has now moved up a level and has landed in front of the state’s Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis. There, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require Stronach to meet with city and state officials about redeveloping Pimlico. This could keep the Preakness in Baltimore, while adding other entertainment options, housing and shops.
That bill might have firmer footing, were not the Stronach Group also the owner of another racetrack, Laurel Park, which also happens to be located in Maryland, though it is not in Baltimore City but in an outlying county. And a separate bill competing for lawmakers’ favor would fund a $120 million redevelopment of that track – which could ultimately allow that venue to host the Preakness. Already in the last five years, Stronach has spent nearly 90 percent of its state horse track renovation subsidies on Laurel Park, rather than Pimlico, giving Laurel far more updated amenities and facilities.
At the end of last week, Ways and Means Committee members appeared to be open to passage of a working group to consider the future of Pimlico but questioned what the Sun called “the doomsday outlook of the visitors and officials from Baltimore,” and seemed open to discussing the potential benefits of growing Laurel into what Stronach terms a “super track.”
Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, has repeatedly said the state of Maryland is too small to support two race tracks, and that consolidation is the only way to remain sustainable. He claimed other states have seen this type of consolidation.
“Whatever scenario happens, [the Preakness] is going to end up in Maryland — is that correct?” asked Del. Kevin Hornberger, a Republican from Cecil County. Ritvo said it would. One fear, however, is that if lawmakers do accept the proposal to renovate Laurel Park -- and if the state law is overturned (it currently notes the race can be moved to another track in Maryland "only as the result of a disaster or emergency"), there will be nothing to stop the race from moving out of state entirely, should teh STronach Group decide to do so.
Were the race to move from Pimlico, the track and all its outbuildings would become, according to some, "the city's largest vacant lot" since in addition to being down at the heels, the venue also suffers from a lack of live racing. With the exception of May (the month the Preakness and a few other events are held), the venue offers only video simulcast racing. Pimlico was also the site of the Thoroughbred Horse Show in October and will once again host the Brew & Bourbon Classic festival in November 2019. It has hosted music festivals as well. Laurel Park, by comparison, has a robust calendar of live racing almost every weekend.
The Sun noted that a new study by the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute, released Friday, said the Preakness would generate $52.7 million in economic activity each year if the race remained at a rebuilt Pimlico.
The Preakness is expected to remain at Pimlico this year and next. After that, say the owners, all bets are off.