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Pimlico grandstand issues are an opportunity, not an emergency

The north Grandstand area of Pimlico Race Course will be shut down a month before the Preakness Stakes.

On the night of June 16, 1966, an electrical malfunction sparked a massive fire in the wooden, Victorian clubhouse at Pimlico Race Course. The 96-year-old structure burned to the ground. All that remained was a brick chimney.

Yet the track’s owner never hesitated over staging the famed Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on the third Saturday in May 1967, less than a year after the catastrophic fire. One of the era’s classic champions, Damascus, made a strong move as the horses rounded the final turn and breezed to an easy victory over a fast track.

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Contrast that with what’s happening today: Pimlico’s Canadian owner suddenly announces the closure of the historic Old Grandstand because of structural weaknesses it “recently” discovered. Nearly 7,000 seats were closed, and patrons who already purchased tickets relocated. The Old Grandstand will sit empty.

State law, passed in 1992, requires the Preakness be held in Baltimore. It may be moved “to another track in the State only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

Is this the first step by The Stronach Group to declare an “emergency” so it can hijack the Preakness to its track in Laurel? It smells like a man-made emergency. The Maryland Racing Commission, which has the legal power to force repairs, sadly remains a silent sideline observer.

Closing one grandstand this year hardly ranks as an “emergency.” The 1966 Old Clubhouse conflagration makes today’s seating setback look like a pothole that can be patched — not a reason to send the Preakness on a permanent detour out of town.

Here’s what we learned from the Old Clubhouse fire: All you need to run the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico is a fully functioning race track with a mile-and-3/16th course.

Thousands of extra grandstand or clubhouse seats may help the track owner’s bottom line, but they are irrelevant to conducting the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown at its historic home for decades to come.

The Racing Commission has an obligation to Maryland racing and the racing public. It should direct The Stronach Group to make necessary repairs at Pimlico before this ever becomes a true “emergency.”

I would suggest the Racing Commission use The Stronach Group’s own engineering report as its initial punch list. Intentional abandonment is not an option.

What’s occurring at Pimlico — the sad structural decline of America’s second-oldest race track — is The Stronach Group’s doing. Stronach knew what it was buying in 2002. It chose to ignore Pimlico’s aging infrastructure for well over a decade.

Instead, over the past eight years, Stronach diverted tens of millions of dollars, most from state taxpayers, on non-Pimlico track improvements: Over 80 percent of those tax dollars supported upgrades at Laurel, while Pimlico, desperately in need of basic repairs, received crumbs.

Race track malpractice and demolition by neglect should not be rewarded.

That didn’t stop Stronach from pushing — and failing — to convince the Maryland General Assembly to approve a $120 million “gift” from state taxpayers so it could turn Laurel into a racing Taj Mahal, while Pimlico rots.

Let’s be honest. The 6,670 cordoned-off Old Grandstand seats represent just 5 percent of last year’s reported Preakness crowd. Temporary stands can easily be set up in front of the closed-off area and along the track’s perimeter. This is not a calamity but rather an opportunity.

Closing the Old Grandstand shows it is past time for Stronach to make investments at Pimlico. It can do so in a way that serves as a catalyst for Maryland racing and sparks a community revival.

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The Maryland Stadium Authority study process revealed an exciting redesign for Pimlico’s track property. Baltimore City officials warmly embraced this racing/community development plan. Funding proposals made this concept achievable, but Stronach balked, even though initial discussions looked promising.

The track owner should reassess its opposition.

Turning the Pimlico property into a vast community asset as well as a state-of-the-art racing facility for a spring Preakness meet makes all the sense in the world. Stronach wins, Park Heights residents win, and the state of Maryland wins.

Let’s take the deteriorating Old Grandstand as a signal to engage in serious discussions about reinventing the Pimlico property. It can be a one-of-a-kind racing venue — a 21st-century solution knitting racing’s future firmly into the community so that everyone flourishes.

Bill Cole is the former president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation and a former member of the Baltimore City Council and Maryland House of Delegates. He can be reached at reply@williamcole.net.

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