Crowd surfing, bowties, hats, music and horses at the 144th Preaness infield. (Ulysses Muñoz, Jerry Jackson, Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun video)
The business case behind Maryland Jockey Club owner The Stronach Group’s desire to consolidate all Maryland horse racing — including the Preakness Stakes — at one supertrack in Laurel is pretty simple. Horse racing as an industry is not what it once was, and Maryland is not a big enough market to sustain two tracks. Pimlico is old and decrepit (and getting more so all the time thanks to Stronach’s disinvestment), while Laurel is newer and spiffier (and getting more so all the time thanks to Stronach’s investment). Pimlico is next to some distressed neighborhoods in Baltimore; Laurel is close to the wellspring of prosperity that is Washington, D.C. Ergo, the smart move is to close Pimlico and double down on Laurel, and anyone who thinks otherwise is clouded by sentiment, right?
Let’s not be so sure. The events of the last few months suggest that thoroughbred horse racing is in a lot more trouble nationally than Stronach might want to admit, and the events of this weekend suggest the public’s willingness to turn out for a big event at Pimlico is much greater than they think.
The controversial finish of the Kentucky Derby, in which the apparent winner was disqualified after the race, is by no means the biggest issue rocking the sport. That would be the tragic string of horse deaths at Stronach-owned Santa Anita Park in California. Twenty-two horses died there from December until March, when the track was closed for three weeks to assess safety issues and for Stronach to introduce new rules designed to limit the use of medication that is believed to contribute to horse deaths. Two more horses have died there since. Horse deaths are nothing new in racing — New York state saw a bad string of them several years ago — but these have touched the public consciousness in California, leading even to some talk of a referendum to ban the sport.
That may be a long shot, but it speaks to the public’s evolving feelings about animal rights and the declining hold racing has on the broader culture. According to the Jockey Club, the number of foals sired and races run in the U.S. have been in precipitous decline, particularly during the last decade when both have dropped by more than a third. On-track betting during that time has declined by nearly as much. One big exception to the gloomy statistics comes with a worrying asterisk for the industry. The total U.S. thoroughbred racing purses remained near an all-time high last year, and in Maryland, they have been increasing, but that metric has been artificially pumped up by states like Maryland that provide millions in subsidies for them. How long will lawmakers in Maryland be willing to divert tax revenues from slot machine gambling — about $71 million last fiscal year alone — to prop up another form of gambling that fewer and fewer people care about rather than spend the money on schools?
The question is not whether Maryland can support two thoroughbred tracks. It’s whether it can support even one for long.
And that should put the question of investing in Laurel or Pimlico in a new light. The Stronach Group has balked at a report commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority that outlines a $400 million-plus plan for rebuilding Pimlico, but in the long term, the vision behind it may be much sounder than the Laurel-first one Stronach has been pursuing. The crucial idea behind the Pimlico plan is that the facility would not be exclusively (or even primarily) a horseracing venue but that the track would be the centerpiece of a mixed-use development with facilities for hosting a wide variety of events.
And this Preakness weekend showed that people are still willing to turn out for a big event at Pimlico. Even without a Kentucky Derby winner in the race, even with a month of bad publicity over the shuttering of unsafe grandstand seats and water main breaks, about 131,000 attended Saturday, down just slightly from last year and not far from the all-time record set in 2017. The Black Eyed Susan races on Friday set an all-time attendance record of 51,573. That is to say, in two days of racing this year, Pimlico generated more than half the attendance that Laurel Park will in 168. It wasn’t because of heightened interest in this year’s race — quite the contrary; television ratings were down in Baltimore by more than 10 percent this year (and down 20 percent nationally). It’s because the Maryland Jockey Club has successfully blended tradition with new ways to draw a crowd (particularly in the infield). The Preakness may not have the grandeur of the Kentucky Derby, but at Pimlico, it has developed a business model that can thrive even when the sport that’s the ostensible heart of the event doesn’t.