There were no hot air balloons floating in the sky. No hotels and restaurants packed with out-of-towners. No Inner Harbor fireworks finale or even a “Pee Wee Preakness” with youngsters on bouncy balls in Patterson Park. The 145th running of the Preakness Stakes was preordained to be the most abysmal in modern history. Instead of 130,000 fans packing Pimlico Race Course, just 250 owners and invited guests. And even the timing was odd, the first Saturday in October instead of the third Saturday of May, the third jewel in the Triple Crown instead of the second. Fate and the coronavirus could scarcely have made the Preakness more irrelevant than it was forced to be this year. And so some in Maryland may be wondering: What exactly did Maryland just buy with the $392 million Racing and Community Development Act of 2020 approved by the General Assembly this spring?
The answer? A better future for Pimlico and its sister Laurel Park, for Maryland horse racing, for Sinai Hospital’s planned expansion, for Pimlico’s neighbors who get athletic fields and the benefits of a year-round multi-use facility, and most particularly for Baltimore, which gets jobs and economic development. Prior to the coronavirus, the plan, which is financed primarily through a reapportionment of slot machine revenues that already benefit racing, was a good deal; now it’s better. The economic downturn that has accompanied the pandemic makes this kind of long-term, government-backed investment more vital than ever. The Preakness is staying in Baltimore, and with it, Baltimore remains a prime beneficiary of a multi-year construction project that is expected to generate $900 million in economic activity and more than 5,300 jobs to keep facilities that themselves generate about $400 million in economic activity and support about 2,600 jobs.
We get it. Horse racing is not everyone’s cup of tea. Attendance at tracks was in decline before the virus struck. The industry is grappling with charges of animal cruelty. Casino gambling competes for fans. Sports wagering may as well. But doing nothing would have meant, at minimum, the departure from Baltimore of the Preakness, which generates at least $55 million in tourism dollars each year. Small wonder that Maryland lawmakers approved the investment by a 10-to-1 margin. This year’s Kentucky Derby, just as diminished by COVID-19, still attracted a huge television audience, the event watched by more viewers than any single nationally-televised NBA or Major League Baseball game. Meanwhile, horse racing became a sports cable television mainstay this summer as other sporting events were cancelled or minimized. Maryland spent the equivalent of a billion of today’s dollars for baseball and football stadiums downtown that helped attract and retain the Ravens and the Orioles. This investment is a bargain by comparison.
Will there still be horse racing in 30 years? Considering its long history in this state, the men and women who labor each day, raising, feeding, training and taking care of thoroughbreds, we’d have to say the odds are good. There was a Preakness before there was an American League and well before the first professional football game was ever played. Baltimore needs to take advantage of every asset it has. A one-third stake in the Triple Crown is not something to be dismissed lightly. Preakness is just as much a part of the fabric of this city as steamed crabs and Old Bay seasoning. We can’t afford to neglect it. Not just because it’s because it’s a jobs creator, but because it is our heritage, our tradition, our identity. It’s one of the things that makes Baltimore the historic city that it is.
It may be several years yet before the reinvestment in Pimlico, the Preakness and in the Park Heights neighborhood pays off — before the now-dilapidated Pimlico and the word, “jewel,” can safely be used in the same sentence without irony. But the jockeying for position is over, the bet has been placed, the flag is raised, and, thankfully, the odds remain in the city’s favor.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.