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Preakness leaving Pimlico? Not likely

Maryland's signature horse racing event is anchored by history, logistics

By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

6:16 PM EDT, May 20, 2011

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It may not be an entirely empty threat, but the specter of moving vans hauling the Preakness away is running on fumes.

Not because Maryland's racing industry has found a mattress full of cash or because the public en masse has developed the urge to go to Pimlico's $2 window and place a bet on Lucky Dan.

The Preakness, which will be run for the 136th time Saturday, has other things working in its favor.

The state decided legislatively in 2009 that it would buy the race course and its accoutrements, including the Preakness and its trophy, rather than see it leave.

In addition, there's the overriding logistical question of where the race could go within the tight schedule of the Triple Crown that could accommodate a crowd of more than 100,000 and that would be acceptable to NBC.

Finally, there's the hurdle of finding a deep-pockets investor willing to put in the time and effort into establishing a legitimate alternative to the Baltimore race and destroy a rich tradition in a sport that wears history like a blanket of Black-eyed Susans.

"Anything is possible, I guess, but it's a long shot," said Doug Reed, director of the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona and a Towson native who worked at Maryland tracks, including Pimlico. "Anyone who contemplates it has to ask themselves, 'If I take it out of Maryland, where am I going to put it and how am I going to make money with it?'"

The loss of the Preakness is a dark cloud that looms on the horizon every few years: either the Maryland racing industry gets an infusion of cash or the event that started here in 1873, stopped in 1889 and began again in 1909 will take its business elsewhere.

Two years ago on the final day of the legislative session, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly's leadership passed a law that authorized Maryland to seize Pimlico and the Preakness by eminent domain, if necessary, while negotiating to buy the assets through the sale of bonds.

"I think we're agnostic on ownership, but not on location," said O'Malley at the time. "We're going to do everything in our power to keep it in Maryland. If the state has to step up [to seize the track], that's what we'll have to do."

On Thursday, a spokesman for the governor reiterated that position.

"The governor will not allow the Preakness to leave Maryland," said Rick Abbruzzese. "But we are not at the edge of the cliff that we were two years ago."

A deal struck late last year between the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Pimlico, and the numerous entities with a stake in Maryland's racing industry secured the immediate future of the state's biggest single sporting event.

While the problems of the Maryland racing industry are long, painful and mostly internal, those who have a stake in the outcome work themselves into a lather at the thought of "the racing program getting weaker and another track announcing it will run a race on the third Saturday in May for 3-year-olds at a mile and 3/16ths with a $5 million purse," causing the Preakness to disappear, said John Franzone, a long-time member of the Maryland Racing Commission.

But Reed said the scenario would be a lot more complicated than that.

"The hard part would be justifying the expense. You would need someone with more money than sense because it wouldn't happen in just one year," he said. "You would have to do it for several years until the Preakness said, 'That's enough. I have to fold.'"

NBC, which has the rights to all three races for the first time since 2005 (the Belmont cut its own deal with ESPN before) is pleased with the package it now has through 2015. Officials with the network — which presents the Olympics, Sunday Night Football, golf's U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the NHL — said they don't harbor doubts about the future of the Preakness.

"We wouldn't have made a new deal if we thought it was in trouble," said Ken Schanzer, the long-time president of NBC Sports. "We have between eight and 10 million people watching the Preakness. The Triple Crown stacks up really well [for ratings] against virtually every sport with the possible exception of the NFL."

Fifty percent of Preakness viewers are women, a very good showing for a sporting event, he said. (By comparison, 45 percent of Wimbledon viewers are women).

Schanzer, who endured the pain of losing his favorite team when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, said the tradition of the Triple Crown is the glue that keeps it together.

"I would like to believe that the horse community understands that if you put the middle leg of the Triple Crown somewhere else, it changes the underlying dynamic of the Triple Crown. To win the Triple Crown means you have to win the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont," he said. "That's what it is. That's what it's always been. If you change one of the elements it changes the fundamental equation.

"There have only been three tracks that have been participants in the Triple Crown. They are joined by history. Whether they are conscious partners or not, history has made them such and continues to make them such."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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