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Preakness in Laurel isn't Preakness

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Park Heights community leaders rally to "Save Preakness in Baltimore." The mayor and the city delegation to the legislature oppose SB883, which would have the state issue $100 million to $120 million in government bonds to renovate Laurel Park and move the Preakness from Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun video)

In a recent social media conversation about the fate of Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes, one person wrote an owner has "no greater responsibility than the bottom line" in business. That’s not necessarily true because responsibility is conditional.

Across the years, many people and companies have owned the Preakness, but they don't anymore. Most are dead and gone. You don't permanently own the Preakness, you caretake it, and when your time has expired, you need to have it in shape for the next owner.

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The Stronach Group isn't doing that. It’s attempting to destroy most everything that makes the Preakness the Preakness by moving it to Laurel.

The Preakness Stakes would generate $52.7 million in economic activity each year if the iconic horse race remains in Baltimore at a rebuilt Pimlico Race Course, according to a new study. More than 90 percent of the activity is projected to occur in the city of Baltimore.

To view this in a proper context, we need to see the future of the Preakness as an existential issue. First, we must accept there are things in the world worth preserving. That's why art museums are built and halls of fame, why there are landmark designations to preserve distinctive architecture and why the world mourned when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, enormous statues erected in the 6th century. They cannot be retrieved.

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The old world reminds us of things about ourselves and provides a continuity and purpose for our existence. Who are we? What were we?

Pimlico opened in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended. A famous horse named Preakness won the Dinner Party Stakes, which became the Preakness Stakes. The race not only is a pillar of American horse racing but of the community, culture and ancillary events that rise up around it in Baltimore each spring. For people who live in the city and those who travel from across the country for the race, it is about renewal and the fabric of their lives. Baltimore awakens in an enormous display of pride and celebration.

State and local lawmakers have said for years they do not want to see the Preakness leave Baltimore. Yet no one raised any alarms as Pimlico's owner was focusing most of its finances of turning Laurel Park into a "super track" that would host the third leg of the Triple Crown.

You can't move Mardi Gras to Shreveport, and you can't move the Preakness to Laurel any more than you could move the Belmont Stakes from Belmont Park to Saratoga.

The Preakness is threatened with extinction by people who show no allegiance to it beyond its earning power. Prior owner Frank De Francis vowed never to shutter Pimlico, and after he died in 1989, so pledged his son, Joe.

I still haven’t heard what Frank Stronach thinks of all this. I wouldn't be surprised if this is part of his war with daughter Belinda, who now runs the family company.

Frank Stronach made promises in Maryland. He displayed grandiose artistic renderings at state racing commission meetings of the glistening palace Pimlico would become under his watch. What happened to those plans?

Renovating Pimlico and keeping the Preakness in Baltimore is not only about keeping our history of almost 150 years intact, it's also about improving quality of life for Park Heights residents, creating jobs, offering an opportunity to those without opportune circumstances,

Laurel Park has made more money than Pimlico at least since the advent of intertrack wagering in the 1980s allowed fans from Washington and Northern Virginia to bet on Pimlico races via simulcast at Laurel rather than make the drive up to Baltimore. So what? The Preakness, in Baltimore, still makes the financial nut for the company, and the Stronach Group schemes over fattening that by moving, insensitive to intangible concerns.

Yet not all the concerns are intangible. The Maryland Department of Commerce’s Office of Research reports Preakness visitors and operations generate 500 full-time equivalent jobs and $14.3 million in salaries. Total gross operations and visitor expenditures are $38.2 million. Some people will say those are statewide figures, but, trust me, people aren’t driving out of Baltimore to have dinner in Columbia after the race.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of Pimlico, potentially the year of its death. It will have been killed by executives who refused to promote the track’s spring meet and then cut it to a mere 12 days — 10 they wished didn’t exist.

Boosters of Baltimore — from Mayor Catherine Pugh to longtime residents of Park Heights — urged a different, brighter future for Pimlico Race Course before the House Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis.

Yet, here’s the reality: The Stronach Group doesn’t actually control the race, the state does. Because of the millions of dollars earmarked for racing from state casino slot machine revenues, The Stronach Group races at the state’s pleasure.

The decision not to participate in a rebuild of Pimlico is a sophisticated bluff, and the state could easily call it. If the company won’t put money toward preserving an event integral to the identity and financial health of Baltimore, take away its subsidy.

People who talk about the Preakness only in terms of the business interests of the owner have no business being entrusted with it. They get that in Boston with Fenway Park, and they get it in Chicago with Wrigley Field. There, they don't shutter their ancient sporting grounds, they exalt them.

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John Scheinman (jscheinman@Tribpub.com) is a two-time Eclipse Award-winning racing writer who works in the Baltimore Sun Media Group.

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