I attended my first race at Pimlico in 1982 as a teenager and have been back hundreds of times since. As a lifelong Baltimorean, a horse player and a thoroughbred owner, I have come to the conclusion that it is time to move the Preakness to Laurel Park and shut down Pimlico.
My early visits to Pimlico only allowed betting on live races. The only legal competition for the gambling dollar at that time was a limited Maryland lottery, visits to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, or local bingo halls. Today, there is fierce competition with simulcast betting on dozens of tracks right on your TV or phone, more lottery games, fantasy sports, and six casinos in Maryland and many more in surrounding states. Horse racing is a contracting business with tracks closing or cutting race days across the country. Case in point, Pimlico only had 12 days of live racing this year.
Since 2010, I have visited race tracks in Kentucky, Florida, Ohio and New York. Some tracks struggle, but others flourish. Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar operate boutique meets that draw 10,000 or more fans on many race days. I have been fortunate to have horses run at 11 different tracks in six states, giving me insight into what is working in today’s racing industry. Unfortunately, Pimlico is an antiquated facility and is no longer an attractive venue for new and old horse players.
Public officials and members of Maryland’s racing industry have an opportunity to create a world-class track at Laurel Park so that any day at Laurel Park will be as enjoyable as a day at Delmar, Saratoga or Keeneland.
Pimlico draws big crowds only on Preakness day and Black Eyed Susan Day. Two days of large crowds do not support the cost of the needed overhaul estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The opening of Off Track Betting venues at Timonium Fairgrounds and the Horseshoe Casino are now peeling off many long-time Pimlico patrons. It is unfair to expect Maryland taxpayers to bear the costs. Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect the Stronach Group to invest such sums. Keeping Pimlico open at exorbitant costs will not strengthen racing in Maryland.
Tim Ritvo and Sal Sinatra, the current Maryland leadership of the Stronach Group, have created a great venue at Laurel Park with an emphasis on the horse bettor and fan. In addition, the Maryland horsemen and breeders are benefiting from larger purses. Many top trainers from New York now regularly ship their horses to run at Laurel Park. Maryland has a great history of racing and breeding that is on an upswing. Maryland horse racing is benefiting from the significant investment in Laurel Park.
Baltimore’s memories of the Orioles and Colts at Memorial Stadium live on today. In the 1990s, it made sense to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium. Just ask any baseball or football fan. The Preakness should move to Laurel Park and the Stronach Group should consider renaming it Pimlico at Laurel Park to keep the memory of Pimlico alive. Bringing over some of the original signage and adding a museum room accessible to the fans would further ensure that Pimlico never dies in our hearts and minds.
The time has come for Maryland horse racing to innovate by creating a first-class race track at Laurel Park that can become a destination for serious horse players, casual fans, and top jockeys and trainers from across the country. A new Pimlico at Laurel Park would become the new home of the Preakness Stakes as well as possibly attracting other high profile race events such as the Breeders’ Cup. Baltimore’s hotels and restaurants would still thrive and benefit from a Preakness located at Laurel Park, which is less than 20 miles from downtown Baltimore. The current train stop at Laurel Park is an asset. It allows for fans from Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York to travel to the track.
As a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, I understand Baltimore’s concerns about losing the Preakness. Change is hard but often necessary. A consolidated racing product at Laurel Park would provide lasting benefits for Maryland. Closing Pimlico is a winning bet.
Kevin O’Keeffe is a lobbyist and lawyer, though he does not represent any racing interests. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kokhorseracing.