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Why the Preakness and Pimlico are inseparable

For years, the story leading up to the Preakness Stakes was that Maryland racing was moribund, the corporate owners of Pimlico Race Course were disinterested, and there was a real possibility that the race would soon be moved somewhere newer, flashier and more profitable. This year, the story is something like this: Maryland racing is on the rebound, thanks to state subsidies from slot machine gambling revenue, and Pimlico's owner is finally engaged in investing in his Maryland tracks — and we're still talking about moving the Preakness somewhere newer, flashier and more profitable. Not only would that be a cruel blow to Baltimore, which would lose out on a major annual infusion of economic activity, but it would seriously diminish the value of the Preakness itself.

We've been the first to argue over the years that the racing industry needed to adapt to survive, and we've been heartened to see the Maryland Jockey Club take some positive steps in recent years. It successfully changed the culture of the infield at the Preakness, making it more of a music festival than a drunken debauch, it has shifted racing days at Laurel Park to attract more and better horses, and it is finally talking about night racing and adding family-friendly amenities to the track. Most crucially, the Jockey Club has overcome long-term infighting in the industry to strike a deal with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association that sets the terms for revenue sharing and race days for a decade. The Maryland Racing Commission, meanwhile, has taken important steps to regulate the dangerous doping of horses before races.

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But there's such a thing as taking adaptation too far, and the Stronach Group, which owns the jockey club and with it Pimlico and Laurel, is flirting with crossing the line. We're not talking about the idea of shifting the Preakness from Saturday to Sunday. That might be a good idea if it encourages higher attendance for the Black Eyed Susan and other races now run on Friday. The issue is the idea, still in the kicking-around phase, of consolidating all Maryland thoroughbred racing at Laurel and abandoning Pimlico altogether.

We'll grant there is a logic to it. The Stronach Group would have a much easier time making money in Maryland if it didn't have two major thoroughbred tracks about 30 miles apart, and if it were to consolidate operations, Pimlico wouldn't be the obvious place to do it. Pimlico's grandstand and clubhouse are in such disrepair that they would likely need to be razed altogether in order to achieve substantial upgrades. Pimlico sits on less than half as much land as Laurel Park, which limits the options for expansion or the addition of other amenities like restaurants, retail or a hotel. Pimlico isn't all that easy to get to — post-Preakness traffic jams are legendary — and the surrounding neighborhood is challenged. Laurel, meanwhile, is newer and sits between Baltimore and Washington, which makes it more easily accessible to a larger number of potential patrons. Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer observed this week that "anyone looking to construct a racetrack from the ground up would probably consider the moon as a possible location before looking at Park Heights Boulevard and Belvedere Avenue in Baltimore."

But that's just it — we're not starting from scratch here. We're talking about an event that holds its centrality in the world of horse racing for no other reason than tradition. This is the 140th time the Preakness Stakes has been run at Pimlico, and the 84th time it has been run after the Kentucky Derby and before the Belmont Stakes. That series of races has been known as the Triple Crown since at least sometime in the 1920s. There is no national governing body that deems those three races to be the equivalent of the Super Bowl or the World Series; they just are. Changing the location, timing or distance of any of them would inevitably create a break with the history that is really the only thing holding the Triple Crown together as a phenomenon of national interest.

If the Stronach Group wanted to move the Preakness to Laurel for a year or two while it rebuilt Pimlico into a modern facility, that would be one thing, but moving it permanently would not only be a travesty but a grave miscalculation. When asked about the possibility, Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo recently told The Sun's Childs Walker, "Obviously, it stays in the state of Maryland. If we moved it from its historic site, we would get beat up a bit. But could we pull off a good event at Laurel? Yes." We're sure they could. But it wouldn't be the Preakness.

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