Baltimore wins, then loses bid for Volvo Ocean Race

Volvo Ocean Race organizers wanted to come to Baltimore in May 2015 as part of their 'round-the-world competition but had one request: Could it share the spotlight with the Preakness Stakes or bump the Triple Crown horse race to another date?

The city said thanks, but no way.


So Tuesday, the only U.S. stopover of the Volvo went instead to Newport, R.I.

"We were shocked," said Robert Housman, executive director of Ocean Racing USA, the Baltimore bidder. "It would be discouraging to work hard on something and lose, but clearly they moved the finish line. We won on the merits of our bid and that's a fact."


Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called the outcome "unfortunate. The city and state partners worked in good faith."

Moving the Preakness would be like paving the Inner Harbor. The race originated at Pimlico in 1873 and has been run there every year since 1909. It has been the middle leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown for more than seven decades.

Volvo officials said scheduling the 10 ports over nine months of racing is a juggling act with very tight windows of opportunity.

"We were coming at the wrong time for the city and they couldn't change the date," said Jon Bramley, Volvo's spokesman.

Ocean Racing USA posted a thank you to Baltimore on its website Tuesday morning, calling the city's support "amazing."

Baltimore was host to the race in 1997-1998, when it was known as the Whitbread, and then twice more after it became the Volvo. The two-week stopover was worth an estimated $40 million to the local economy.

On Jan. 22, Volvo officials sent a letter to Housman and other members of the bidding team congratulating them on winning not only the 2014-2015 edition of the race but also the race in 2017-2018.

"We are really delighted to once again welcome Baltimore as a city in the Volvo Ocean Race. We have both visited Baltimore as race entries in the past and have great memories from those races. Now we are certainly looking forward to making the next two races the most successful U.S. stopovers ever in the 40 years history of the Volvo Ocean Race," wrote Volvo race CEO Knut Frostad. "We very much look forward to creating a hugely successful event and positive partnership with Baltimore and starting preparations with you."

That was before negotiations broke down on timing.

In early December, Ocean Racing USA had suggested that the stopover be scheduled for April 24 through May 10 — the same window as in previous stopovers. A Volvo consultant handling the bidding replied the same day, saying that it appeared the racing yachts would arrive in Baltimore from a Brazil stopover "in mid-April, roughly the week before your preferred dates."

During their visit to Baltimore on Jan. 14, Volvo organizers were told repeatedly that the race and tens of thousands of spectators could be accommodated any week in spring 2015 except Preakness week, when hotels, restaurants and support staff already would be overwhelmed, Baltimore officials said. The Preakness runs on the third Saturday in May.

Nevertheless, the bidders promised to review the logistics of hosting both events at the same time with city officials, Housman said. They decided it couldn't be done.


But almost immediately after telling Baltimore it won, Volvo officials pushed the possibility of moving the Preakness or of the city hosting both races simultaneously, which prompted a strongly worded four-page letter from Rawlings-Blake on Jan. 28, who noted that, "we only heard of the Preakness weekend date within the last week."

Housman said, "It was April, April, April — Preakness week. Long after the formal bid process was closed, and after months of saying the race would visit Baltimore in April, they dropped this on us cold."

The mayor said in her letter that it would be impossible for the city and state to focus their energy and attention on ensuring a successful Volvo stopover while remaining true to a horse race that dates back 140 years. She warned that the Volvo would find itself overshadowed by the Preakness and would lose valuable media exposure and marketing opportunities.

"Unlike your past experiences elsewhere, Baltimore will only commit to an event if we are ready and able to guarantee success," Rawlings-Blake wrote. "And, to be clear, we cannot guarantee, and therefore cannot support the VOR on Preakness weekend."

The mayor said she hoped that with three years of lead time, and no firm race dates announced, a compromise could be reached.

But on Feb. 1, city and bid officials said, they received a call from race organizers, saying that they would award the race to Newport if Baltimore didn't budge. That afternoon, Newport officials got a call congratulating them on winning the stopover.

Volvo officials said that since Newport had been awarded only the next race, they hoped Baltimore would submit a proposal for a 2017-2018 U.S. stopover, when the invitation to bid goes out in about three years.

"I'm taken aback. It's akin to how Lucy treats Charlie Brown with the football," Housman said. "If their interest is in coming to Baltimore, why didn't they award 2017-18 to us today? It would be an amazing show of good faith."

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