Preakness at Laurel? The New Coke of horse racing

The Stronach Group can't help themselves, we suppose. Just three months ago, the owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course responded to a Maryland Stadium Authority study of what it would take to bring the latter track to Triple Crown caliber with a willingness to engage in talks about a public-private partnership to finance upgrades. But with the Preakness fast approaching on Saturday, they're back to their old tricks, intimating that the second leg of the Triple Crown might not be run in Baltimore much longer. Preakness is about tradition, after all, and questioning the race's future in vaguely threatening terms is now about as well entrenched as black-eyed Susans, if less intoxicating.

The track owners' argument is that no level of renovations to Pimlico would allow it to produce anything like the revenue Churchill Downs sees from the Kentucky Derby — Old Hilltop's structure is so antiquated that it couldn't support luxury boxes and other modern (and lucrative) amenities. Only building a new Pimlico from the ground up would suffice, and that would cost as much as $500 million, they say, an investment that seems questionable for a facility that's only used a handful of days per year. Oh, and did they mention that they have a nice, modern track ready to go in Laurel?

We'll grant their first point. It might well be smarter to talk about an entirely new Pimlico rather than investing in renovations. The Stadium Authority study that came out in February concluded that it would cost as much as $300 million to renovate the track. But the costs and benefits of demolishing it and starting from scratch were beyond the study's scope, as was the question of how to finance any improvements. It's entirely possible that a complete rebuild would be cost-competitive with renovations yet provide a much higher return on investment.

But as for the wisdom of investing in Pimlico, we would note that the good condition of Laurel and deteriorating one of Pimlico didn't happen by accident. It is the result of a deliberate strategy by Stronach and its predecessors to consolidate operations and investments in Laurel. As a general proposition, that makes sense. Interest in horse racing isn't what it once was, and it would be hard to make a business case for maintaining full-scale operations at two tracks in such close proximity. Of the two tracks, Laurel could be modernized for less, plus it is conveniently located between Washington and Baltimore.

But the state's repeated efforts over the years to preserve the Preakness tradition change that calculus. When Canadian billionaire racing enthusiast Frank Stronach took complete control of the tracks in 2011, state law already prohibited the move of the Preakness to any other track in Maryland except as a result of a disaster or emergency. It also allowed the state to use eminent domain to seize the tracks, all trademarks and other intellectual property related to the Preakness and even the Woodlawn Vase — the 1860 Tiffany and Co. silver trophy awarded annually to the race's winner. He knew what he was getting into.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has said she would do what it takes to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, and Gov. Larry Hogan has said that while the state won't write a blank check, he would be willing to discuss possible state involvement in an effort to keep the race in Baltimore. Neighbors to the south of the track are interested in a renovation or rebuilding of the track provided that employment opportunities will be made available to local residents during the construction phase, and neighbors to the north, while wary of too much development around the site, generally understand the economic need to make it a destination more than a few days a year.

Rather than warning that it would require a "huge" commitment of state resources to keep the Preakness at Pimlico — and not acknowledging the "huge" amount of money the state is already sending their way as a result of the legislation that legalized slots and casino gambling — Stronach officials ought to be focused on finalizing an agreement with the Stadium Authority and the Baltimore Development Corp. on a second phase of the Pimlico study. That study has not yet gotten underway because the parties involved have not settled on its scope, and the Stadium Authority's director said today that it's not certain that it will be completed before the General Assembly reconvenes in January. It needs to be. The key political players in the State House and City Hall are as committed now as they are likely to be to finding a solution that preserves the Preakness tradition. Who knows what the next election will bring?

We have no doubt that the Maryland Jockey Club could run a very nice race at Laurel Park two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, but it would be the racing equivalent of New Coke, everything a focus group might tell you they want in a leg of the Triple Crown but none of what people actually love about the Preakness. This is the chance to preserve and protect the Preakness tradition. We can't let it go by.

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