The owners of the 148-year-old Pimlico Race Course say they’re committed to holding the Preakness Stakes — Maryland’s largest and splashiest sporting event — at the faded Baltimore horse track for one more year.
After that, all bets are off.
The uncertainty leaves The Stronach Group in the unusual position of promoting tony upgrades at Pimlico for the May 19 race while acknowledging, in the words of top executive Tim Ritvo, that “we can’t continue to operate in a facility that was built in 1870. It doesn’t give the customer experience.”
Stronach hopes that new amenities this year — including elevated chalets with glass walls and front porches for VIP guests — will help sell guests on coming back next year.
But beyond that, company officials say, it would be premature to speculate where the prestigious Triple Crown race will be held as they await the critical second phase of a $600,000 Maryland Stadium Authority study on options for Pimlico’s future.
Stronach’s holdings include Laurel Park, a track between Baltimore and Washington that hosts more races annually than Pimlico, and which the company says would be a candidate to stage the Preakness. The Preakness attracted a record 140,327 fans to Pimlico last year.
“At the end of the year we’ll find out what the study says and then we’ll have to be able to see the appetite of the city and state for whether the investment makes sense to keep it at Old Hilltop or move it to the Laurel location,” said Ritvo, chief operating officer of Stronach’s racing division.
“The nice thing right now is all parties interested know that kicking the can down the road doesn’t work anymore, that sooner or later — whether it’s another year or two years or five years — that something has to be done because we should be looking at the stewardship of the Preakness,” he said.
In a 30-minute interview, Ritvo and company chairman and president Belinda Stronach frequently expressed their commitment to “the State of Maryland,” but not to Baltimore.
“The Preakness is not leaving the state of Maryland ever,” Ritvo said.
Mayor Catherine Pugh and other city officials are making a concerted effort to keep the Preakness at Pimlico. The track in Northwest Baltimore hosted the inaugural Preakness Stakes in 1873, and has hosted every running since 1909.
“We intend on keeping the Preakness in Baltimore. The Preakness is Baltimore,” Pugh said. “Believe me, this will be a public-private partnership.”
The Stronach Group would need legislative support to move the Preakness to Laurel. Under state law, the race can be moved to another track in Maryland "only as a result of a disaster or emergency."
Pugh is tying the city’s push to the revitalization of the Park Heights neighborhood. Pimlico is bordered by Park Heights, Mount Washington, Glen, and Sinai Hospital.
Park Heights contains more than 2,000 vacant lots and buildings, the stadium authority reported in its initial study of the track last year.
“This is not just about the Preakness,” the mayor said. “This happens to be in a community that we will be investing in. We’ve begun clearing land. We’re going to be tearing down more.”
Park Heights is among dozens of struggling neighborhoods recently selected by state officials for federal tax breaks designed to spur investment. Under last year’s federal tax overhaul, investors can put money into housing and business projects in the so-called Opportunity Zones and pay less tax on any capital gains that result.
The stadium authority concluded in the initial phase of its study last year that it would cost $250 million to $320 million to renovate Pimlico.
Old Hilltop, located seven miles northwest of downtown Baltimore, is steeped in history. It is where Man O' War romped to victory in 1920 and the first tote board was introduced in 1933. Seabiscuit upset War Admiral there in 1938, and Secretariat overwhelmed the field in 1973.
But vast sections of Pimlico have a patched-together, industrial look. Ritvo has said the structure would need to be completely rebuilt — which would cost more than renovating it — and that Stronach has no plans to foot the bill.
The track is alternately described as a historic treasure — akin to Boston’s Fenway Park or Chicago’s Wrigley Field — and as outmoded or decrepit.
In a race with Pimlico, Laurel has statistics on its side. The track, in which Stronach has invested $30 million in upgrades the past few years, hosts 159 racing days to Pimlico’s 12. The company said it has invested $20 million in Pimlico during the same period.
But Ritvo said the company can’t afford to invest heavily in both tracks, and it has designated Laurel as its “day-in and day-out track.”
Stronach wants to host a future Breeders’ Cup at Laurel, an event industry leaders say could cement Maryland’s resurgence on the national racing scene.
The Breeders’ Cup could draw 60,000 to 70,000, which means it could also serve as a test run for a possible Preakness at Laurel.
Asked whether Laurel was the “early leader” to host the Preakness in the future, Ritvo said it was too soon to tell.
The Maryland Jockey Club operates Pimlico and Laurel for Stronach. For those who want to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, former jockey club CEO Joseph A. De Francis said, the economics pose a “conundrum.”
“Focusing on this as a business, you cannot justify operating two tracks within 35 miles of each other. However, there are other considerations,” De Francis said, and pointed to Pimlico’s history and character — including the infield concerts and celebrations — that have become attached to the the identity of the Preakness.
“I don’t believe the event would be as successful as Laurel,” De Francis said. “It is part of the cultural fabric of the City of Baltimore. It’s like closing Fenway Park.”
Because the infield at Laurel is part of a stormwater management system, the track could not host Pimlico-style concerts. At Laurel, a concert and picnic area would likely be to the side rather than the center of the track.
De Francis said he is hopeful that a public-private partnership could emerge to allow for the redevelopment of a new Pimlico tailored to the Preakness.
“What I’m suggesting is to turn Pimlico into a venue only used for the days of racing they have now,” he said. “They wouldn’t be trying to maintain two very similar racetracks.”
Belinda Stronach said she is willing to listen to any proposal.
“We are really committed to working together with all the stakeholders to improve racing in the state of Maryland,” she said.
To try to improve Pimlico’s odds, its backers are exploring non-racing uses of the site to justify more investment.
“The question now is what should be the state and private investment for 365-day-a-year use of that site,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico.
“A year ago, we were trying to make the case for state and local investment in virtually a one-day-a-year operation. That is no longer the case.”
Now, he said, there is talk of commercial and office space “that would make this an asset and an attractive place for recreation, for work, for shopping 365 days a year.”
In 2016, the Jockey Club sold a multi-acre parcel that had been part of the Pimlico site to LifeBridge Health’s Sinai Hospital. The hospital plans to develop the property as an outpatient care facility with parking.
“Any decisions regarding Pimlico will be part of our planning process,” said Brian M. White, executive vice president of LifeBridge Health.
Pugh said there are many options for the track area.
“We could be talking concerts, we could be talking recreation. Of course we do believe we should have more racing days,” she said.
The second phase of the stadium authority study is exploring such year-round development possibilities for the site. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year — in time for the next General Assembly session, which begins in January.
Among those conducting the study is Crossroads Consulting, a Florida firm that has performed economic analyses of Camden Yards and the Hippodrome as well as convention centers, fairgrounds and arenas around the country.
It's not clear how much appetite the state has to help Pimlico.
“Ultimately it may come down to outside investment,” said Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for the Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE. “I think it would be difficult to ask taxpayers to put money behind it. It’s a significant cost.”
But Saler said it would be hard to imagine the Preakness anywhere else.
“There are only so many sports traditions in Baltimore, and that is one of them,” he said.
State legislators said they are waiting on the study to help frame the debate. Gov. Larry Hogan has said he wants to keep the Preakness in Baltimore and wants to work with all the involved parties on a possible deal
The state built Camden Yards — which the Orioles lease — for $106.5 million in 1992, plus about $100 million to acquire the site. Maryland also funded M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens since 1998, at a cost of about $220 million, not including interest on the bonds.
Ryan King-White is a professor of sports management at Towson University.
Those and more recent public expenditures, he said, “lead me to wonder what the politics are behind the funding of those projects that ended up garnering political support while this one, at present, seems to be running into a roadblock.”
“At the same time, to justify public expenditures on Pimlico — which is what it seems like they are going to have to do — they are going to have to host more than 12 days of racing versus Laurel's 150.”
Preakness sales lagged in March, but a Stronach spokeswoman said they have since picked up.
“We are now tracking ahead of where we were last year and expect to welcome another record-setting crowd on both Black Eyed Susan and Preakness Day,” spokeswoman Tiffani Steer said. She declined to release sales figures.
Belinda Stronach said her vision — no matter where the Preakness is held — is of an event that feels modern.
This year, she said, Stronach is replacing 23 tents with six elevated chalets to be shared by VIP guests. It is spending $1 million on enhanced WiFi and adding trams to ferry guests across the dirt track. The InfieldFest is going from two stages to one large stage, which she said will allow concertgoers to more easily see the race.
The investment in Pimlico and Laurel “is really a good news story,” she said. “We just have to figure out how do we do it best.”