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As Preakness crowd fills Pimlico, consultants will study track

As crowds fill the infield and stands at Pimlico Race Course for the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, consultants working for the state will fan out to assess what's needed to keep the Triple Crown race there on future May Saturdays.

The Maryland Stadium Authority approved a $280,000 contract earlier this month with Crossroads Consulting Services, which will study the aging facilities at Pimlico and estimate what it would cost to transform it into a top-tier entertainment venue that could remain the long-term home of the Preakness.

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"If you've got more than 100,000 people coming to an event at the site, then that helps to make the case that this is where we should continue to have this extraordinary event," said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat who represents the Pimlico area. "If you build it, they will continue to come."

Yet another unsettled weather pattern is expected to pour as much as an inch or two of rain on the 141st Preakness Stakes.

Upgrades have already been made in the past year: The TV screens in the infield have been replaced with a high-definition board that is 21 feet high and 32 feet wide. The Turfside Terrace dining area has been expanded. New carpeting and flat-screen televisions have been installed in the Grandstand Upper Box.

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Rosenberg and other advocates for Pimlico hope the study will provide the impetus for further redevelopment of the race track, but they're taking a gamble: The answers that come back could bolster the case for moving the race to the Maryland Jockey Club's other Maryland thoroughbred racetrack, in Laurel.

Officials say cosmetic changes aren't enough to make Pimlico viable. And neighborhood groups worry that the race, seen by some as a "positive force" in the community, might be taken away if the cost of improvement is too high.

A $20-million renovation of Laurel and Pimlico race tracks is proposed, and earlier this year legistlation passed that pledged $500,000 a year to revive the D.C. International and a $500,000 bonus for Maryland-bred horses winning the Preakness. Breeding is at the core of this revival

Michael J. Frenz, the stadium authority's executive director, said the consultants will provide an "objective, independent study for decision makers."

Bruce F. Quade, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission who was among those seeking the study, said the stadium authority is the "gold standard" for such work because "everybody trusts them."

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"All options are on the table," he said. "It's not ... predetermined that the Preakness should move."

Quade added, however, that conditions can't remain as they are at Pimlico.

"Things are falling apart," he said.

The first phase of the study, expected to take a year, will assess the physical facilities at Pimlico and estimate what it would take to redevelop them, Quade said. The second phase, estimated to last four to five months, will look at options for financing the work.

Crossroads will not make a recommendation on whether to move the Preakness or keep it at Pimlico but will provide cost estimates for the alternatives, Quade said.

"They're going to come back with a objective number," he said.

The cost of the study will be shared by the Jockey Club ($150,000), the city through the Baltimore Development Corp. ($50,000) and the state ($80,000).

Bryce Butler, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, said he hopes the study leads to redevelopment of the racetrack. While some residents closest to the track wouldn't miss the Preakness crowds, Butler said, most in his neighborhood see Pimlico as a "positive force."

"Without anything there, what would replace Pimlico?" he said. "Those are questions I think about."

George Mitchell, president of the Neighborhoods United umbrella group of Park Heights community associations, said he doesn't understand the need for a study.

"I just think they should do what needs to be done to keep the Preakness at Pimlico," he said. "What we need to do is figure out how we can make the Preakness be more of a benefit for Park Heights."

Mitchell said he'd like to see hotels, restaurants and shopping as part of a Pimlico redevelopment plan.

And he's dead set against moving the Preakness.

"You don't hear anybody talking about moving the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes," he said. "We have to keep that here."

A clause in Crossroads' contract with the stadium authority forbids its representatives from talking with the news media about plans. Sal Sinatra, president and general manager of the jockey club, said the company has issued passes to Crossroads representatives and expects them to be at the track Friday and Saturday.

Already, the Jockey Club — owned by the Stronach Group — has concluded that some upgrades to the current facility are out of the question. Increasing the height of the grandstand is not structurally possible, Sinatra said. The grandstand could be extended horizontally along the track, he said, but those seats would be far from the finish line.

At least one serious infrastructure problem has been resolved, Sinatra said. Last year, a sudden loss of water pressure forced bathroom closures before the 140th Preakness. A new valve has been installed to maintain pressure this year, he said.

"We should be fine with the toilets this year," Sinatra said.

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