There are some long faces in Baltimore’s sports tourism sector and they don’t belong to horses.
With the news that a Maryland Stadium Authority study calls for demolishing Pimlico Race Course and rebuilding it at a cost of $424 million came fears that the Preakness Stakes – the middle jewel in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown – could move away and never return.
That could be bad news for Baltimore which according to a 2017 report, benefitted greatly from the race; Preakness visitors and operations generated 500 full-time equivalent jobs and $14.3 million in salaries.
While there is no doubt the track and its multiple facilities, including grandstands, infield, barns, parking facilities, betting windows, concessions and more, are old, outdated and dilapidated, the news is still an unpleasant bombshell.
And while reconstruction is sorely needed, the ability to pay for it is a different matter. The study suggests city and state officials, the Maryland Jockey Club and The Stronach Group of Canada, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, enter into formal negotiations about the next steps. However, the Stronach Group made it clear that it would not foot the entire bill for a renovation or rebuild and that such an undertaking would require a substantial public investment. But the company has said it is open to discussing a public-private partnership.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said she was encouraged by the report’s findings, but said it was too early to know what role public subsidies could play in meeting the project’s estimated cost.
“What we believe is, this is a path forward for the Preakness in Baltimore,” Pugh said. “We know this is going to require public-private partnerships, including the state.”
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the Baltimore Sun he thought the report’s suggestions for improvement were a “great idea,” and added he believed city officials could come up with tax breaks and other incentives to help in the rebuilding. But Young said he was concerned that the Preakness might move during a rebuilding and then not return.
“If they can guarantee us we won’t lose the Preakness, the city will do our part,” Young said. “The state needs to do their part, too.”
The Stronach Group has openly discussed moving the race for years — prompting an outcry from city boosters who see Pimlico Race Course as part of Baltimore’s rich history and potentially a major economic contributor to one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, if the track were enhanced.
Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Governor Larry Hogan, said the governor is "on record supporting keeping the Preakness in Baltimore and at Pimlico.”
The full study, which was released online in mid-December, aims to design an ideal venue to host the Preakness Stakes and considers several year-round, non-racing uses for the site located in Baltimore’s Park Heights area. It recommends adding amenities at the track, such as a grocery store, other shops, a hotel and townhouses. It also offers opportunities for sports tourism, with athletic events (and possibly even entertainment) being able to be hosted on the track’s infield.
According to the Sunpaper, the stadium authority last year released the first part of its study, which said a renovation of the dilapidated track would cost between $250 million and $300 million. The second phase of the study released in December was designed to include analysis of the neighborhood surrounding the track and of possible non-racing uses for the facility. The latest study cost $426,335 and was paid for by the stadium authority, the city, the Baltimore Development Corporation and the Maryland Jockey Club.
Part of the reason for diversifying the site is to attract more activity from more sectors. Potential non-racing uses for the clubhouse, the report suggested, include hosting offtrack betting, video gaming competitions and drone racing, as well as sports gambling ( although legislation to permit sports betting in Maryland failed this year in the General Assembly).
This year’s Preakness Stakes will be held on May 18, although pre-race festivities begin nearly at the close of the Kentucky Derby, with speculation regarding the possibility of a Triple Crown winner reaching fever pitch around post time.
However, all is not necessarily lost for the iconic race, according to Rachelina Bonacci, public information officer for the Maryland Stadium Authority.
"As an alternative to relocating the Preakness Stakes during the demolition of the existing facilities and the construction of the new Pimlico Race Course, a phased construction schedule that could allow the Preakness to remain at its current location in the interim years was explored," noted Bonacci. (This information can be found on this website, on page 51, Alternative Construction Schedule).