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As Preakness Stakes approaches, the real winner could be Pimlico and surrounding neighborhoods as massive overhaul of aging track gets underway

Yolanda Jiggetts will head to the Pimlico Race Course Saturday for the Preakness Stakes race, but with an eye toward a future when crowds flock there more than once a year and for a range of events.

Sandy Rosenberg will host his usual pre-Preakness brunch at home, then walk over to the track, this year with “an extra bounce” in his step.

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And Alan Foreman will breathe easier, reassured that however invisibly at the moment, a massive overhaul of the aging facility is underway to keep the Triple Crown race in its historic Northwest Baltimore home far beyond its now-146th running.

The director of a community group, the state legislator and the lawyer representing Maryland’s horsemen are among those approaching this year’s Preakness with some hard-won optimism.

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The sun sets behind Pimlico, which will host the 146th running of the Preakness on May 15. Soon, the aging track will undergo a massive overhaul, with the clubhouse, grandstand and concourse seen here demolished and replaced by fewer permanent buildings. Plans call for a more flexible space that can be reconfigured for a range of uses, such as other sporting events and festivals, in addition to the annual Preakness.
The sun sets behind Pimlico, which will host the 146th running of the Preakness on May 15. Soon, the aging track will undergo a massive overhaul, with the clubhouse, grandstand and concourse seen here demolished and replaced by fewer permanent buildings. Plans call for a more flexible space that can be reconfigured for a range of uses, such as other sporting events and festivals, in addition to the annual Preakness. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

For years, Baltimore has feared losing the Preakness, the state’s largest sporting event, as Pimlico deteriorated and its owners, the Stronach Group, sought to move the race to their other Maryland facility, Laurel Park.

But the launch of a roughly $400 million redevelopment plan for both tracks promises not just to keep the Preakness in Baltimore but also to revitalize impoverished parts of Pimlico’s surrounding neighborhoods.

The project emerged several years ago from negotiations between the city, the racing industry and the track owners, each with competing if not at times warring interests in the fate of the Preakness, Pimlico and its neighbors. The plan got the go-ahead, and funding that largely will come from the issuance of $375 million in bonds, with the Maryland General Assembly’s passage of the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020.

“It bridged community interest with the racing interests for the first time,” said Alan Rifkin, the lawyer for the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel.

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That approach, he said, “made the project feasible when, historically, it looked as if it was never going to be possible.”

Under the plan, the Stronach Group will turn Pimlico over to the city. Its clubhouse and grandstand will be demolished, and the racetrack rotated 30 degrees to free up parcels to sell for other development. A new clubhouse and event center will be erected, but horse training and stable operations will be consolidated at Laurel Park.

All racing will move to Laurel, except for a short spring meet in Baltimore that will include the Preakness, turning it into something of a pop-up event, albeit a huge one with a worldwide audience. Extra seating, tents and other equipment will be moved onto the site for the festivities, and removed afterward, with Pimlico undergoing various reconfigurations to host other events the rest of the year.

Bring it on, say some in nearby neighborhoods, who welcome getting more out of Pimlico than a one-day opportunity to sell parking spaces or food to passing Preakness-goers.

“How will it support the surrounding community?” is the question, said Yeshiyah Israel, a shopkeeper on Park Heights Avenue and president of the Pimlico Merchants Association. “We’re right here. We’re stakeholders.”

Israel is among those named to a community advisory board to the redevelopment project, which will be managed by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The owner of YBI African Apparel & Boutique, who one year sold fascinator hats at a booth at the Preakness, Israel envisions the renovation of the track having ripple effects throughout the community.

“It has such a bad rap, ‘Oh, the community is seedy,’” she said, making clear she disagrees. “But as people see beautification, as they see money is invested, things change. Changes come.”

Yolanda Jiggetts, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance, is among those who see this year's Preakness as heralding a new phase of the dilapidated Pimlico Race Course. Preliminary work is underway for a $389 million redevelopment plan that will keep the Preakness at the track. She hopes that will benefit the surrounding impoverished area.
Yolanda Jiggetts, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance, is among those who see this year's Preakness as heralding a new phase of the dilapidated Pimlico Race Course. Preliminary work is underway for a $389 million redevelopment plan that will keep the Preakness at the track. She hopes that will benefit the surrounding impoverished area. (Kenneth K. Lam)

For Jiggetts, who heads the Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit group, the improvements come as other major developments have broken ground or are in the pipeline for a neighborhood known more for its rampant vacant buildings and other urban woes.

That kind of critical mass should “spark a lot of business,” she said, and bring the kinds of amenities that other neighborhoods take for granted — grocery stores, sit-down restaurants, a movie theater, bowling alley or other family entertainment venues.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Jiggetts said. “It takes a lot of money to rebuild a community that is the product of years of disinvestment.”

Still, it comes at a price. Jiggetts’ group had to give up some of the money it receives from Maryland’s casino revenues to contribute to the cost of the redevelopment project. She said the group would lose $3.5 million of what in a recent year had been more than $8 million, money that might otherwise have gone toward building a long-awaited library branch.

With roots to Pimlico that go back to her birth at Sinai Hospital next door and frequent trips to the track with a grandmother who loved to bet on the ponies, Jiggetts said compromises were necessary to achieve the ultimate goal.

“It’s a balancing act for the greater good,” she said.

Not everyone is as willing to accept everything that comes with a revamping of Pimlico. April Inloes Smith may not live in the neighborhood, but as a horse owner and historic preservation buff, she has given tours of the track and is an administrator of the Facebook group Friends of Pimlico.

She said she fears losing some of what makes it special: the history embedded in its walls and its very soil, where the ashes of such legendary figures as onetime general manager Chick Lang have been strewn.

“They think the only way to save Pimlico is to destroy Pimlico,” the Ruxton resident said.

Smith said the need for redevelopment is due to the track’s owners letting Pimlico fall into disrepair even as it lavished attention on its other facilities.

Pimlico’s crumbling walls, leaking ceilings and unreliable electricity and plumbing are familiar to those who have endured power outages, long restroom lines and other indignities at the track. Meanwhile, the Stronach Group, which is based in Canada, focused on turning Laurel into a “super track” that could host the Preakness instead.

That prompted then-Mayor Catherine Pugh in March 2019 to sue Stronach and attempt to seize Pimlico. A couple of months later, the Democrat had resigned amid scandal over sales of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books. At the Preakness that spring, her successor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, took company president Belinda Stronach aside for a private discussion that began tamping down the long-simmering hostilities.

Horses are washed at the receiving barn at Pimlico Race Course the week before the running of the 146th Preakness Stakes on May 15.
Horses are washed at the receiving barn at Pimlico Race Course the week before the running of the 146th Preakness Stakes on May 15. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

By June, the city had dropped its suit, and Rifkin, the jockey club’s lawyer, began meeting with Foreman, the horse industry counsel, and William H. Cole IV, the former Baltimore Development Corp. CEO, who represented the city’s interests.

The plan they developed led to the General Assembly’s passing the racing act in March 2020. A couple of months later, it became law without the signature of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who had been lukewarm to committing to such a large amount of spending at a time when the COVID pandemic was starting to wreak economic havoc.

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Asked for comment on the redevelopment, Belinda Stronach issued a statement saying the legislation paved the way for “a bright future for the Preakness at Pimlico,” investment in Park Heights, and year-round racing at Laurel, “making it the epicenter of training and racing in the Mid-Atlantic.”

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Just as the plan was launching last year, the pandemic delayed the 2020 race to October, making it the last rather than middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown. The general public wasn’t allowed into the track, with attendance limited to horse owners and invited guests and capped at 250.

This year, the Preakness is back in its traditional time slot in May, two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, a welcome sign of a return to some kind of normalcy. Once again the Baltimore race will determine whether one horse will win all three jewels, something only 13 have ever accomplished. Crowd size will still be limited — to 10,000 for a race that in recent years had drawn more than 130,000 — and social distancing restrictions mean no InfieldFest, as the live music concert and anything-goes bacchanal in the midst of a horse race is known.

Preakness-goers won’t see signs of the coming reconstruction of Old Hilltop, although this and next year’s race could be the last in its familiar configuration, said Gary McGuigan, who is managing the project for the stadium authority.

It’s a complicated undertaking, to juggle construction schedules at the two tracks while continuing to host racing meets at both, and keep a multitude of interested parties ”on the same page and designing something we can afford,” McGuigan said.

But this is not the 35-year-old authority’s first major project — that would be Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 and set a standard for ballparks. Rifkin was involved in that effort as well.

“It was a brand-new process,” Rifkin said. “So there was a lot in the way of learning curves for everyone involved at Oriole Park.

“The end result was iconic and spectacular and has served the test of time,” he said. “And I’ll think you’ll find the same thing here.”

The stadium authority in February selected two architectural firms, Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore and the Kansas City-based Populous, to begin the design process.

“I think the key point is that, with the architects on board, the train is leaving the station,” McGuigan said. “And the stakeholders need to keep working and making important decisions to make sure the train keeps going.”

After decades of uncertainty around Pimlico and the future of the Preakness, Foreman said he’s feeling reassured these days by the “methodical” process going on behind the scenes, even if people aren’t yet seeing “shovels in the ground.”

Already, though, there’s been a taste of what the next several years may bring as racing moves to one track to accommodate construction at the other. An emergency track surface replacement at Laurel last month canceled some races and shifted others to Pimlico.

It was frustrating for some Maryland horsemen, whose familiar training rituals have been disrupted by the move, not to mention the more than yearlong pandemic.

“This is a resilient population of horsemen,” Foreman said. “While nobody could be happy, they’re going to make the best of this situation knowing that at the end of the day, with the redevelopment plan moving forward, there’s much to look forward to.”

Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said that despite the slow pace of the project in this early phase of “crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s,” it will pay off in the end with a more viable future for racing in the state.

“So, I’m very optimistic that things are moving in a positive direction,” Keefe said.

For now, Pimlico remains its unrenovated, rather tattered self. Still, dozens took to the track last Saturday to watch some racing on Kentucky Derby day.

Beth Eder of Perry Hall and Dave Johnson sit with their families during Derby Day at Pimlico Race Course on May 1, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Beth Eder of Perry Hall and Dave Johnson sit with their families during Derby Day at Pimlico Race Course on May 1, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“Walking in, it brought all the warm and fuzzy feels,” said Beth Eder, who hadn’t been to Pimlico in years. The Baltimore County resident used to come with her mom and stepdad, and on Saturday brought her own 8-year-old daughter, Addison Dietz, dressed like a jockey in pink and white “silks.”

Theodore and Cassandra Robb made a day of it in Baltimore, in pandemic style. The Owings Mills couple went to the Waverly farmers market in the morning, then to an area clinic for Cassandra Robb to get her second COVID shot, before making their way to Pimlico.

It was only her second time at the track and yet she felt oddly at home.

“It’s a comfortable feel, it has a homey feel to it, and that’s what I like about it,” she said. “At Laurel, I don’t get that same feeling. At Laurel, it feels more corporate.”

Cassandra Robb and husband, Theodore Robb, of Owings Mills cheer the sixth race during Derby Day at Pimlico Race Course on May 1, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Cassandra Robb and husband, Theodore Robb, of Owings Mills cheer the sixth race during Derby Day at Pimlico Race Course on May 1, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Others were less kind about the state of Pimlico, but glad to hear help was on the way.

“This whole place has just gone to the pits,” said Scott Weiner, part of a foursome of self-described “bums” who are obsessed with racing and have gone to Pimlico and Laurel for years.

“They’re on the right path if they get the money and keep the money,” said his friend Stephen Kleeman. “It needs to be brought into the 21st century and leave the 19th century.”

From left, Stephen Kleeman, brother Terry Kleeman, Larry Albin and Scott Weiner -- all of whom have attended Pimlico since 1972 -- sit together during Derby Day on May 1, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
From left, Stephen Kleeman, brother Terry Kleeman, Larry Albin and Scott Weiner -- all of whom have attended Pimlico since 1972 -- sit together during Derby Day on May 1, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

That’s happening, said Rosenberg, the state delegate in whose district, and heart, Pimlico looms large. He has long fought to keep Preakness in town, and with architects hired and other preliminary work on the redevelopment underway, he is feeling particularly celebratory these days.

“It was my dream, my legislative intention that we were going to prevail and the race wasn’t going to leave,” he said. “If you build it, it’s not a dream.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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