The Undercard: As Preakness looms, major changes may be coming to Maryland racing

The Undercard: As Preakness looms, major changes may be coming to Maryland racing
The Preakness Stakes returns to Pimlico on May 16 (Brandon Weigel)

The Preakness Stakes has an enviable position in the Triple Crown schedule. It may not have the glitz of the Kentucky Derby, but the Preakness offers something the Run for the Roses does not: acute anticipation.

Sure, there’s always a favorite in the field at Churchill Downs that commentators and bettors will key on. But nobody left the track disappointed in 2009, when 50-to-1 long-shot Mine That Bird hugged the rail and pulled off a major upset, or in 2012, when I’ll Have Another edged the favorite, Bodemeister.
But once the Derby’s been run and attention turns to Pimlico Race Course, all eyes are trained on the winning colt: Can he do it?
Win the Preakness, and the focus and pressure become more intense at the Belmont Stakes, with everyone clamoring for the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Lose, and the action at Belmont Park becomes an afterthought, at least to the casual race fan.
But it’s guaranteed, year after year, that there will be a big buildup on the day of the Preakness that lasts until the group of horses crosses the finish line.
This year’s race sets up to be a classic, with several of the horses who ran in a deep and talented field at Louisville making the trek up north, including the top three finishers, American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund. The last time the top three horses from the Derby met in Baltimore for a rematch was 2009.
And this trio put on quite a show a few weeks ago. All three made their way near the front at the start of the race and stayed there, pushing each other and battling it out down the stretch.
“I’m just hoping I get as close a finish as they had in the Derby. I mean, because all three horses had a legitimate chance to win inside the one-eighth pole,” says Sal Sinatra, the vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, the group that has overseen racing in the state since 1743.
With such a great storyline on Maryland’s biggest day of racing, it would seem the state’s thoroughbred community is right where it wants to be. But a May 4 column published in the industry magazine Blood-Horse spelled possible drastic changes looming on the horizon. Sinatra and Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of Stronach Group, the company that bought the Maryland Jockey Club in 2011, are set to devise a master plan to make Maryland racing profitable.
Many options are on the table, including the possibility of consolidating the Maryland racing calendar to one track and moving the Preakness Stakes to Laurel Park. It’s a move encouraged by some, including Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer, who noted that Pimlico needs a complete renovation and suggested, “Anyone looking to construct a racetrack from the ground up would probably consider the moon as a possible location before looking at Park Heights Boulevard [sic] and Belvedere Avenue in Baltimore.”
“As a company, we’ve been losing $3 to $5 million a year for the past half-dozen or so years,” says Sinatra. “And our job was to come in and try and right the ship and make sure Maryland racing can sustain itself.”
In the Blood-Horse column, Ritvo said Stronach is “looking at everything,” and it was noted that “the company’s financial models for Maryland indicate ‘they work out with only one facility.’”
Sinatra, who is at the helm of his first Preakness since taking over control of the Maryland Jockey Club late last year, seems a little more optimistic about keeping both tracks open.
He says business is off to a good start in 2015, citing moving the horses out of the Bowie Training Center and into Laurel Park as a way to cut costs, along with the newly opened off-track betting site at the Horseshoe Casino and deeper fields as potential revenue boosts. Fields at Pimlico have been averaging one more horse per race compared to last year, Sinatra says, and that tends to draw more betting action; there are more combinations for exotic bets (exactas, trifectas, etc.) at higher value, and favorites tend to pay better as well.
The symbiosis between the two tracks has its advantages too. Laurel has larger acreage and more stalls, including a recently constructed 150-stall building, to keep horses, but Pimlico tends to draw the larger betting handle because of its appeal to hard-core racing fans.
“I think you’re more likely to see the guy with the visor and cigar pounding the window at Pimlico than you are at Laurel,” says Sinatra. “You’ve got the person with an ice cream cone and a $2 ticket in their hand at Laurel, enjoying the day.”
For its part, Stronach is reportedly considering investing in one or both of the facilities, showing it’s committed to trying to make this work. With perhaps some further reworking of the schedule, new promotions, and more OTB facilities, Sinatra hopes MJC can keep the status quo with the two tracks and get things into the black.
“That’s really my ultimate goal, [my] personal goal,” says Sinatra. “I’m a longtime race fan and I’m anxious for Preakness—at Pimlico. It would be very strange to have Preakness at Laurel, to me.”
We tend to agree. The Preakness has been run at Pimlico every year since 1873, save for a stretch of nearly two decades around the start of the 20th century when it either ran in New York or did not run. Old Hilltop is a fundamental part of its rich tradition.
On Saturday, the questions about the future will fade away as a crowd of more than 100,000 eagerly watches to see if American Pharoah can take the next step to history. The cheers will build to a roar as the horses round the turn near Northern Parkway and head for home. It shouldn’t be any other way.