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Pimlico Race Course to close nearly 7,000 seats just a month before thousands arrive for Preakness Stakes

The last remaining historic section of Pimlico Race Course is being shut down a month before the Preakness Stakes after an engineering firm determined that 6,670 seats in the Old Grandstand’s open-air section are “no longer suitable to sustain that level of load bearing weight.”

The Maryland Jockey Club announced that the 125-year-old, northernmost section of seating will not be accessible to the tens of thousands of horse racing fans set to flood Baltimore in mid-May for Black Eyed Susan Day and the 144th running of the Preakness.

The 6,670 seats represent nearly 47 percent of the approximately 14,000 seats in Pimlico’s traditional structures — the Clubhouse, Main Grandstand, Old Grandstand and Sports Palace — and make up about 17.5 percent of the overall seated capacity of nearly 38,000 people at Old Hilltop, according to Pimlico’s website. An additional 82,000 people are estimated to fit in standing room and infield areas.

“As the safety and security of all guests and employees at Pimlico is paramount, the Maryland Jockey Club made the difficult decision to close that section of the grandstand for this year’s Preakness Stakes,” the Maryland Jockey Club said in a statement.

The timber-and-steel Old Grandstand that envelops the rickety stadium seats was recently called “the only tie back to the history of the Old Hilltop days” in a Maryland Stadium Authority study that also bluntly stated that Pimlico had “reached the end of its useful life.”

The announcement comes just days after Baltimore-area lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly defeated an effort by the Stronach Group, which owns the jockey club, to pass legislation that would have accelerated its plans to renovate Laurel Park and a nearby Bowie facility as a “super track” that could host the Preakness.

The plan sparked outrage from Baltimore elected officials, who saw the company’s effort as a clear indication that Stronach wants to move the Preakness out of Pimlico and run it in Laurel. The Baltimore Sun reported last month that the company had spent most of its state-subsidized renovation funds on Laurel instead of Pimlico — news that upset city lawmakers.

The company and lawmakers from the Laurel area had been pushing legislation in the General Assembly that would have enabled the Maryland Economic Development Corp., or MEDCO, to issue bonds worth $120 million to finance $80 million in improvements to Laurel and $40 million for a Bowie training center. Stronach wants to consolidate its operations at Laurel and participate in a redevelopment of Pimlico.

Del. Nick Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat who led much of the resistance to Stronach’s plans in Annapolis, responded Saturday to the closures by expressing frustration on Twitter with the company’s favoritism for Laurel. He said the urgent safety concerns were another reason “why Pimlico should have been included in the MEDCO funding bill.”

“In the interim,” Mosby wrote, “good faith discussions must commence. The Preakness belongs at Old Hilltop!”

Stronach officials made no mention of the legislation in a statement obtained by The Sun.

Bill Hecht, chief executive of U.S. real estate for The Stronach Group, said the decision was “deeply disappointing” to the company, which will suffer a blow to a “peak moment in time when we generate the most amount of income for the industry.”

“As the safety and security is paramount to our guests and employees, this position to forego income should in no way be interpreted as anything other than that,” Hecht said.

The company said racing fans who have already purchased tickets in the Old Grandstand for the May 18 Preakness and May 17 Black Eyed Susan Day have until May 1 to exchange them for new seats. Fans can call (877) 206-8042 to exchange the tickets, which cost from $195 to $245, according to various ticket websites.

Disparities in the allocation of funds between Pimlico and Laurel helped Baltimore-area lawmakers galvanize opposition to Stronach’s plan in Annapolis to funnel even more state funding to Laurel.

An investigation by The Sun of Stronach Group’s investments into the two tracks showed that the company has favored Laurel for years as elected officials rarely raised concerns about the disparity. From 2011 to 2018, Stronach spent 80 percent of $112 million in state grants, subsidized support from the horse industry and its own cash at Laurel Park. The remainder, $23 million, went to infrastructure repairs at Pimlico during that period.

The bulk of the money, $45 million, came from Maryland’s slots-funded Racetrack Facilities Renewal program over the past five years. Roughly 87 percent of those funds went to Laurel, The Sun’s review of records found. Stronach invested an additional $3 million of its money for additional improvements at Laurel, the company said.

The Maryland Stadium Authority report stated that renovating the Old Grandstand was estimated to cost about $20 million but is “considered critical to modernizing and enhancing the guest experience at Pimlico.”

The closing of the seats will have a significant impact on a business that just reported to the Maryland Racing Commission that its operations at Pimlico and Laurel are losing money at a faster rate than the previous year, according to Stronach’s 2018 financial statements.

Combined operating losses for Pimlico and Laurel Park were reported to the state as $15 million in 2018, a 66.6 percent increase over the nearly $9 million combined loss in the prior year. Revenue at Laurel Park, which held 156 racing days last year, grew nearly 7 percent last year to $39.5 million while expenses jumped 9 percent to $47 million. At Pimlico, which hosted just 12 racing days in 2018, expenses were up 11 percent to $33.5 million while revenue declined 3.6 percent to $26.5 million — driven primarily by the Preakness and Black Eyed Susan.

Laurel’s total losses last year were offset by a $5.2 million contribution from associations of horse owners and breeders that receive a share of state slot machine revenue. Pimlico received nothing from the groups.

The state’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal fund provided $5.2 million to Laurel last year to finance $10.4 million in infrastructure renovations that were evenly financed by Stronach. Pimlico received $1.5 million from the renovation fund last year, up from just $32,000 in 2017.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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