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Schmuck: As racing fans flock to Laurel Park on Belmont Day, opinions mixed about Preakness' future

The Belmont Day crowd at Laurel Park lapped it up.

The fans poured in all Saturday afternoon, either hoping to see Justify become the second horse in four years to win the Triple Crown or looking for a big prize if he didn’t.

Well, he did, and the place went nuts.

Maybe it wasn’t as big a deal as when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought when he steamed home at Belmont Park in 2015, but Bob Baffert’s second Triple Crown winner kept the heart of horse racing beating.

It would be difficult to estimate the attendance at Laurel Park, since admission is free, but the noise level as Justify crossed the finish line was a pretty good indicator of the enthusiasm throughout a facility that has been dramatically upgraded over the past several years.

Whether that adds anything to the ongoing debate over the future of the Preakness is just as difficult to measure.

The Stronach Group has made it pretty clear it would prefer to move the Preakness to Laurel, where the second jewel of the Triple Crown would play to a tonier audience in a much more comfortable environment.

Theoretically, that could happen in just a couple of years if city and state officials can’t come up with a plan to fund a major Pimlico Race Course renovation, which some estimate will cost anywhere from $300 million to $500 million.

Rick Proctor, a longtime horse owner from Lutherville, said it might already be too late for that.

“The problem is, whatever you do there can’t sustain itself for a rate of return,” Proctor said. “Nobody can come up with, ‘OK, if we spend this money, how are we going to get our money back?’ That’s just not going to happen. I think we’ve got to put our eggs in a winning basket.”

He would like to see the state come up with money to support a bigger and better Laurel Park, which would serve both the Baltimore and Washington areas and host the Preakness as well as other big events.

“What they ought to do is float a bond and put the money here,” Proctor said, “so we further expand this like Gulfstream Park and we will be able to attract the Breeders’ Cup, the Preakness, the International – which is going to get revived – and maybe even the Pegasus, since it’s owned by Stronach. That’s what we ought to do.”

Alan Barnes of Northeast Baltimore would hate to see that happen.

“I’d be very upset,” he said. “I like the idea of tradition. I like the idea of the money it generates for the city … for the people in the neighborhood and the surrounding areas. For me, personally, it’s even convenient. I’ve been going since 1978. I enjoy that. That’s something I’m very proud of for Baltimore. I guess they have their reasons for why they want to [move it], but I think it should stay.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lot of opinion on this subject runs along geographical lines. Laurel, of course, is much closer to Washington and the D.C. suburbs, so it would be a lot more attractive to fans in those areas who don’t want to go deep into Baltimore to watch the big race.

“Laurel would be a little bit closer for me, so it would give me a little bit better chance to go,” said Jeremy Batka, who lives in Washington and was sporting a Nationals cap in the clubhouse betting area. “I do like the [historical] aspect and I like the racing, but it would be nice to have it here. If it was closer, it would definitely be more convenient to me. I would definitely be more into it.”

Kate and Jay Bell made the trek from Towson to bet on the Belmont on Saturday and acknowledged that they’re ambivalent about where the Preakness ends up.

“I wouldn’t be upset about it,” Kate Bell said. “I think it’s close enough to where we are … as long as it’s in Maryland. It’s nice down here. This is the first time coming here. I’ve been to the Preakness three times.”

Her husband, who makes a habit of attending Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico conceded he felt more comfortable coming to Laurel.

“You feel safe here,” Jay Bell said. “You don’t have to worry about the neighborhood. You don’t have to worry about anything coming in. If they’re really worried about making sure the Preakness stays in Maryland, if you’re down here you’re going to get that D.C. crowd.”

Would that be a sure thing? Would the racing fans in Washington flock to Laurel and make the big race their own?

“Maybe,” said Jim Cassedy of Hyattsville, who also was sporting a Nationals baseball cap. “It certainly would be much closer and if they ran trains from D.C., it would be far easier for me to get to it. I think that’s pretty likely. It depends on how much infrastructure is built up to get people here. I mean, it would get pretty congested up here, but it already is up in Baltimore, of course. I would love to see better transportation up here on Preakness Day if we were going to have it here.”

Keith Whitehead, of Relay, said he doesn’t care about infrastructure or the D.C. market or making the Preakness more gentrified. To him, it’s pretty simple.

“I’d rather it be at Pimlico, just because of the heritage and the history,’’ he said. “I think it belongs there.”

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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