With the Preakness days away, Baltimore officials approved renovations at Pimlico Race Course yesterday, capping a frenzied six weeks of work to fix fire code violations that had threatened the safety of racing fans.
Although two of the 10 violations remain, city officials said they are satisfied for now with the track's temporary safety measures.
"The facility is three to four times as safe as it was before," said Zack Germroth, spokesman for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. "We're good to go."
The city demanded that the code violations be fixed last month, after the Maryland Jockey Club sought approval for improvements such as new horse barns and portable luxury boxes. Those proposals angered city officials concerned that money was being spent on the comfort of high rollers while long-standing code violations remained in the grandstands.
In response, the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the track, spent about $1 million to build staircases, exit doors and fences in the grandstand area.
After daily racing at the track, more than 100 workers showed up each afternoon to work from 5 p.m. until 2 a.m. A dozen four-man welding crews were at work this week, putting the final touches on staircases that replaced temporary metal stairs.
John Cole, one of the city inspectors who has been working closely with track owners, said he was impressed with the work, particularly the addition of 27 exit doors.
"People are able to exit the building very quickly," he said. "If you have one door and 5,000 people going out, there could be back-ups."
City inspectors have visited the track twice a week over the past 18 months and will make a final inspection tomorrow.
Germroth said there are two remaining violations at the 130-year-old race track. It lacks a sprinkler system and fire-alarm system.
As a temporary measure, he said, an alarm will be broadcast over the public address system if there is a fire emergency.
For Preakness Day, track owners have hired 30 off-duty city firefighters who will be stationed in the kitchen, dining rooms, smoking areas and other sites that could be fire hazards.
Sprinklers and alarm system are to be installed during a $20 million track renovation. Germroth said the city wants the sprinkler system installed next year. "That's a big, big thing," he said.
Problems in 1998
The problems associated with the aging track came to light two years ago when a power outage during the Preakness Stakes left fans in darkened stairwells. Betting machines and air-conditioning units shut down and could not be restarted because the track did not have a backup generator. The track now has a number of backup generators.
The breakdown in the national spotlight prompted Joseph A. De Francis, who holds a controlling interest at Pimlico and Laurel Park, to pledge $18 million to renovate the race track. Pimlico has not had a major renovation in almost 50 years.
City officials had threatened court action against the track owners, but closing the track was highly unlikely. Such a move could have cost the city and state millions of dollars.