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Dangerous grandstands at Pimlico or retaliation by Stronach?

The north Grandstand area of Pimlico Race Course will be shut down a month before the Preakness Stakes.

We don’t know yet if the the Maryland Jockey Club is justified in its decision to shut down a major portion of the Pimlico grandstands that seats nearly 7,000 people just ahead of the Preakness Stakes. But it’s certainly remarkable timing — and convenient for a company that has made naked its desire to move the Preakness Stakes to Laurel, no matter how devastating that might be to Baltimore.

Is it mere coincidence that the crucial decision came just days after city officials helped stave off legislation that would have paid for improvements at Laurel Park and a nearby training center in Bowie rather than investing funds to fix up Pimlico? Or that it came shortly after the city filed suit against The Stronach Group for not adequately investing in Pimlico?

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The Maryland Jockey Club, a Stronach Group subsidiary, won’t release the engineering report it said shows that the Old Grandstand’s open-air section can’t take the weight of so many people. Stronach officials told The Sun’s Doug Donovan that they are still reviewing its findings. The report came out in March. How much more time do they need? And didn’t they have to review the report to make such a drastic decision to shutter so many seats so close to the big day next month, when tens of thousands of people will come to Baltimore for a day of horse racing?

We can’t blame city officials for not wanting to take the jockey club at its word, given the company’s track record of letting Pimlico slowly deteriorate while steadily investing in Laurel. The company has used 87 percent of $45 million in track-renovation subsidies from the state on Laurel instead of Pimlico over the last five years. A sudden safety issue at Pimlico certainly doesn’t hurt Stronach’s plans, and we can’t help but wonder whether it will be the last. First it’s a grandstand, then what? A dangerous track? Sinkholes in the infield? When will the problems end?

The city is sending building inspectors to look at the grandstand, and the Department of Housing and Community Development said the agency is also looking into the issue. City officials need to also continue to push for Stronach’s engineering report.

We certainly don’t want to see anyone hurt because of outdated stands. If there is indeed a structural issue, then precautions need to be taken to keep people safe. Right now, we just don’t have enough information to say whether the threat is real, notwithstanding company officials’ assertion that their decision has nothing to do with politics. If so, then we eagerly await The Stronach Group’s announcement of plans for emergency investments in Pimlico, both to provide more temporary seating at this year’s race and to fix the supposed structural problems before next year. Pardon us if we don’t hold our breath.

The Stronach Group can’t move the Preakness without approval of state lawmakers because of a law passed in 1987 that requires that the second leg in horse racing’s Triple Crown be run at Pimlico except in the case of a disaster or emergency. We don’t think a self-made disaster is what lawmakers had in mind when they enacted that statute.

There is still chance for a viable redevelopment of Pimlico as a year-round venue for activities that compliment horse racing and serve as the anchor of mixed-use development. Stronach makes that difficult with its deliberate and strategic plan for Pimlico to fail. Losing the Preakness would be a huge economic and iconic loss for Baltimore, and city officials need to continue to fight the Stronach Group’s effort to make that happen.

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