Pimlico celebrates 125 years


The slogan for the 50-day Pimlico Race Course spring meet, which opens with a nine-race live thoroughbred card as well as assorted simulcasts today, is "Horsin' Around for 125 Years."

It might well have been: "Still Surviving After All These Years."

Throughout its history of having horse racing conducted at this one particular Baltimore spot for 125 consecutive seasons, the track has endured its share of traumas.

It started at what has been described as "a ploughed circle" on property settled by an Englishman who once lived near Olde Ben Pimlico's Tavern in London.

Twice the Pimlico facility has been on the brink, first in 1949 and again in 1956, of being shut down and merged with Laurel Park.

Fire destroyed its grandstand in 1894 and its clubhouse in 1966.

During the Spanish-American War, the grounds were used as an Army training camp.

But through it all, the history-rich racetrack, venerated in song in such Broadway musicals as "Guys And Dolls" and the scene of some of the triumphs of many of the sport's most revered thoroughbreds, has developed a colorful allure.

Owners Joe De Francis, his sister Karin De Francis, and Martin Jacobs, have said they are committed to preserving the track and although renovations seem to be going agonizingly slow, they are progressing.

During the meet, resurfacing the grandstand facade and building two new barns will be "works in progress." It is part of a five-year plan to level old wooden barns on the Hayward Avenue side of the track, create new entrances, a park and an outdoor paddock in their place, and place all stabling, except the Preakness Barn, on the Pimlico Road side of the track.

The meet also starts on an optimistic note: a betting upswing that began at Pimlico last spring continued at the recently completed Laurel Park fall and winter meet. Total handle jumped 28.8 percent from the previous year, including a 6.6 percent rise on the live races, and came right after both tracks recently posted a combined $1.2 million profit in 1994 after showing losses for five straight years.

The focal point of the Pimlico meet is the 120th running of the Preakness on May 20. The racing schedule includes $3.41 million allocated for stakes, including the May 13 Pimlico Special.

Night Spirit, a son of 1977 Preakness and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, is the 9-5 early favorite to win today's opening-day feature, the $30,000 Fire Plug Stakes. Larry Reynolds has the mount.

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