Blackout puts spotlight on Pimlico Preakness trouble raises concern about old track


At its northernmost end, the vast grandstand of Pimlico Race Course is held aloft by a series of timbers likely milled and erected during the administration of President Grover Cleveland.

A bolt here and bracket there have kept them straight and strong for more than a century. Such patching has kept Pimlico open longer than all but one other American race course. Still, the partial blackout during the Preakness eight days ago drew attention to the deteriorating condition of Old Hilltop, which is more of a relic than a museum piece.

Fans, horsemen, and regulators have complained for years about Pimlico. The state is studying the possibility of taking it over. Some sportswriters have even suggested the track be dropped from the Triple Crown and another race substituted -- a unlikely event, but the mere mention of it demonstrates how far Pimlico's reputation has fallen.

"The backstretch is really dilapidated. Pipes are giving out. The wiring is going bad. I think if they are going to keep racing, then they need to upgrade," said Hubert "Sonny" Hine, a trainer with bases in New York, Florida and Kentucky who got his start in Maryland and has competed in six Preakness Stakes.

Hine said he is always treated well at Pimlico by the staff and management. But the facility doesn't compare well to its two Triple Crown sisters, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and Belmont Park in New York.

"Those two other parks are much better than Pimlico. No doubt about that," Hine said.

Churchill Downs and Triple Crowns Productions Inc. president Thomas Meeker declined to comment on Pimlico, other than to say through a spokesman that dropping the track from the Triple Crown "has never been discussed, and it's not an issue worth discussing."

Safe, but out of date

Martin P. Azola, vice president of facilities for the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of both Pimlico and Laurel Park, said the company budgeted $993,000 for capital improvements to Pimlico this year. The entrance way was renovated, new motors installed in the air conditioning units and a mini-museum built to display track artifacts.

Pimlico is structurally safe and sound but functionally out of date, he said. A big part of the problem is that the sport has changed since even the newest portions of the complex were designed, when Pimlico's summer meets consisted of only live racing viewed from open-air grandstands. There was no need for heat, air conditioning or television monitors.

Although there has been much renovation, the track's structure consists of three basic portions, each built with the materials of its era: the northernmost end constructed of wood in the late 1800s, the middle grandstands built of steel around 1910, and the main clubhouse, made with reinforced concrete in 1954.

"It's like an old house that's been added to and remodeled over the years. There's nothing wrong with the structure. It's in good shape," Azola said.

But it's expensive to run. Pimlico is as long as the Empire State Building is tall, and the enclosed space ranks it among the biggest buildings in the city. Attendance ranges from a few hundred patrons most days to more than 90,000 on Preakness day.

As recently as 15 years ago, a Saturday might bring out 18,000 fans, close to what the buildings were designed to accommodate. Now, due to declining popularity and the opening of off-track wagering parlors, a good day brings out 4,000 people. The same area needs to be cleaned and maintained, Azola said.

Half its pipes are old-fashioned galvanized steel, although they are gradually being replaced with copper. Its electrical system consists of seven transformers feeding a labyrinth of wires and functions. The air is cooled by 26 air conditioning units, each the size of a minivan, mounted on rooftops.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the partial blackout on Preakness day, and it may turn out to be a relatively modern piece of electrical equipment that failed.

Although the track hasn't had a serious fire for a while, it has had lots of minor ones. The fire department was called in on Preakness day to extinguish a smoldering cigarette under a wooden section of the grandstands. Guards routinely patrol this area at night after big races, looking for smoke to be sure a similar incident doesn't bring the place down.

Baltimore Fire Department spokesman and Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said regular inspections of the track over the years have revealed no hazards out of the ordinary for a building of its size and type. "Pimlico has been very willing to work with the Fire Department to correct any violations found," Torres said.

Some of the wooden barns surrounding the track date to the early part of the century. The result is both an eyesore for neighbors and a drag on horse trainers trying to entice investors to buy horses with visits to the stalls.

"The facilities are less than satisfactory. It's very difficult to get operators to move here. I've had owners and trainers that don't want to go to Pimlico," said Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association Inc.

He said the maintenance is no worse than it has been under previous ownership. But, he said, "The place needs a tremendous amount of refurbishing. The question is, is it worth ,, refurbishing or do you start from scratch?"

Annual investment

The Maryland Jockey Club maintains Pimlico as well as Laurel Park and a training center at Bowie. When the company's bank loan was restructured several years ago, the lender required an annual capital investment in each facility to protect the value of the assets, Azola said.

Over the past few years, Pimlico has gotten about $1 million a year, Laurel about $1.7 million and Bowie $300,000. Laurel gets more because it is open more days, Azola said.

"The dilemma we face is what's the future of the facility? What's the future of the racing business at Pimlico? We do the best we can with what we have to keep it all up and operating," Azola said.

"We've become very good at using new finish, new colors. We're trying to get as much show for our money as we can."

Track owner Joseph De Francis has hired an architect to draw up plans for a $110 million overhaul of Pimlico, including consolidating barns on the track's east side and building a park and outdoor paddock to the westBut De Francis has said he can't afford it without a major new source of revenue: slot machines. Legalize video wagering at the state's racetracks and he could afford such a project without using government money, he said.

Lesser investments may not be worth the trouble, he said. And he's not actively pursuing other means of finance. "We would be happy to look at other ideas that would work if someone would point them out to us," he said.

Capitalized ownership

A former part-owner of the track, however, says a better capitalized ownership could do more with the tracks.

"I think there's a strong potential for racing in the state of Maryland," said Robert Manfuso, who feuded with De Francis for control of the tracks. "There are people in the business who would be interested in promoting the business. Obviously, there are publicly owned companies that have access to capital."

Deep-pocketed investors, including Orioles owner Peter Angelos, have inquired about buying the Maryland Jockey Club in recent years. The operators of California's Hollywood Park came close to acquiring the tracks in 1993, but De Francis opted to keep the company, which he inherited, along with millions of dollars in track debt, from his father.

De Francis said he doesn't believe any investor will put $100 million into the place under the current economics of the business. "You have to be able to show a return on investment," he said.

Pimlico earned an operating profit of $2.6 million last year, on revenues of $29 million. After taxes and debt service, its net income was $1.2 million. De Francis said he puts all the profits into capital investments in the tracks.

Aid from the state

Gov. Parris N. Glendening opposes the introduction of slot machines in the state and has said he prefers finding other ways to aid the industry. Over the past two years he has signed bills giving the industry about $23 million, most as subsidies to purses.

A commission appointed by Glendening suggested a number of items for further study, including a state investment in or even purchase of the track, making it public property similar to Oriole Park. Further study of that possibility was ordered in legislation approved this year by the General Assembly and signed by Glendening.

Glendening has not taken a position on the question of a state takeover of Pimlico, although he is interested in what the study commission recommends, spokesman Ray Feldmann said.

"The governor does have serious concerns about conditions at Pimlico," Feldmann said.

On that, and perhaps only that, he and De Francis agree. De Francis is backing Eileen Rehrmann, a pro-slots opponent of Glendening, in the September primary. The track operator opposes public ownership of the tracks.

"Pimlico is not anywhere near adequate for modern times," De Francis said. "The main part of this building was built in 1954. That's the same year Memorial Stadium opened. This facility is no more suited to the 21st century than Memorial Stadium."

Pimlico fix-ups

Highlights of renovations at Pimlico this century:

1998: Remodeling of the circular clubhouse entrance, with widened sidewalks, flowers, painting and rebuilt fences. Recarpeted the Jockey Club, other work. About $1 million.

1995: Resurfaced the grandstand facade and built two new barns for about $1 million.

1989: $1.5 million Sports Palace opens. Racing surface rebuilt for $500,000.

1988: Two new barns among $1.5 million in renovations.

1984: Triple Crown Dining Room added for $500,000.

1979: About $500,000 spent on landscaping.

1976: Grandstand and clubhouse air conditioned for $900,000.

1975: Pedestrian tunnel to infield constructed.

1973: Preakness Terrace, Jockey Club Terrace and Hall of Fame restaurants built for $1.5 million.

1971: Grandstand remodeled.

1968: Brick barns replace wooden ones on backstretch.

1967: New dining terrace.

1962: New racing surface, aluminum safety rail.

1960: New clubhouse opened. Finish line moved 220 feet down homestretch.

1956: Members clubhouse remodeled.

1954: New grandstand.

1938: Infield hill leveled.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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