Visitors to the 147th running of the Preakness Stakes, particularly those swaddled in the customary finery befitting the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown, can surely be forgiven if they arrive this Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, take their seats, order their bourbon-laced Black-Eyed Susans and express the following thought to their companions: “What a dump.”
Even dressed up for this nationally televised event, Pimlico is no Ascot Racecourse in England. Perhaps it’s the 7,000-seat section of the historic grandstand that had to be closed three years ago and remains deserted and covered by a tarp. Or the cracked blacktop parking lot. Or just the aging of every bit of crumbling fixture and finish in the place. But they ought to be cheered by this thought: Help is on the way.
There may be no outward sign of the major renovation of Pimlico promised two years ago — a much-needed boost to the Preakness, to Maryland thoroughbred horse racing and to the surrounding Northwest Baltimore communities — but behind the scenes, some progress can be measured beginning with legislation that was enacted just last month.
Under House Bill 897, the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan gave approval to legislation authorizing borrowing for both Pimlico and for the Blue Line Corridor, the Prince George’s County public infrastructure effort intended to help retain the home stadium of the Washington Commanders NFL football team. In the case of Pimlico, as much as $200 million could be spent on “sports entertainment facilities” by the Maryland Stadium Authority. It essentially sets Pimlico as the MSA’s top horse racing priority, potentially postponing much of the work to be done to Laurel Park under the original $400 million joint renovation of the two tracks first approved by the state in 2020.
Still, it’s fair to note that Pimlico’s revival has already been delayed. When the renovation plans were first unveiled in late 2019 before their approval by the General Assembly months later, representatives of the Maryland Jockey Club predicted it to be finished by 2024. Now, the expectation is 2026 with the project beginning in “10 to 14 months” with the demolition of those 7,000 condemned seats likely providing the first tangible signs of progress.
Why the delay? It started with COVID-19, but then came supply chain issues with the rising costs of construction materials and higher interest rates. Some design ideas had to be scaled back, particularly at Laurel Park which was actually supposed to be repaired and replaced first but is now delayed, in part, for federal tax reasons.
Such challenges can surely be overcome. The goal remains not simply to make Pimlico look a bit nicer for the TV cameras once a year but to keep both the Preakness in Maryland and preserve the jobs and other economic benefits that come with racing. It has been estimated that the Preakness alone generates more than $50 million in economic activity each year. The total value of the horse industry to Maryland, however, has been judged to be closer to $1.3 billion including more than 21,000 jobs. The Preakness Stakes make up about one-quarter of that, and the rest is in breeding, recreation, training, equine therapy, farming and on and on. Making a strategic investment in preserving the industry (with financing chiefly from slot machine revenue) still makes sense.
Mercifully, most of us don’t have to sweat the details, such as exactly how big the oval at Pimlico should be or the exact look of the clubhouse or how to renovate Laurel’s stables without interfering with the state’s 120 racing days. Rather, we can focus on the promises made that an upgraded Pimlico will be good not just for Maryland’s economy overall but quite specifically for the surrounding Park Heights neighborhood. As recently detailed in this newspaper, there are already signs that the area is in the midst of a comeback. How much better for Northwest Baltimore if their landmark track can become a greater source of both job opportunities and civic pride? After all, the goal is not just to build a better racetrack but to have a facility that can host other events such as outdoor concerts and spark other new business investments.
A long shot? Maybe — but not as big a one as Rich Strike, the 80-to-1 entry who won the Kentucky Derby but won’t be running Saturday in Baltimore. It’s a shame he won’t be there, but it won’t ruin our anticipation of 2026 and beyond.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.