Baltimore building inspectors visited Pimlico Race Course this week and confirmed the deterioration in the Old Grandstand that led the Maryland Jockey Club to close off nearly 7,000 seats for Preakness weekend next month.
The Maryland Jockey Club gave the city’s code enforcement officials Monday portions of an engineering report produced in late March that found 6,670 seats in the Old Grandstand’s open-air section are “no longer suitable to sustain that level of load-bearing weight.”
While elected officials continued to blame the company for Pimlico's condition, Jockey Club executives said the city and state has known the 148-year-old track has been deteriorating for decades without devising a strategy to save Pimlico.
The seat closure has fueled that ongoing dispute between Pimlico supporters and the Jockey Club about whether the Northwest Baltimore track or the company’s other track, Laurel Park, will host the Preakness Stakes in the future. Several elected officials continued this week to question the need to close the seats just a month before Preakness, the biggest event of Pimlico’s 12 racing days.
State lawmakers from Baltimore sent a letter to the Maryland Racing Commission, which meets Thursday, asking the regulatory board to require The Stronach Group, which owns the Jockey Club, to release the engineering report. They also demanded that the commission “provide a heightened level of oversight” of the company’s management of Pimlico.
“We are deeply troubled by the last-minute decision by The Stronach Group to close the [Old] Grandstand at Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes,” stated a letter dated Tuesday sent by Sen. Antonio Hayes and Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, the Democratic leaders of the Baltimore delegation to the General Assembly. “This decision, which has displaced thousands of ticket holders, is made worse by the fact that [Stronach] has refused to release the engineering study it claims justifies its decision.”
“We urge the Maryland Racing Commission to use its oversight authority to force the release” of the engineering document, the legislators wrote.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said he plans to speak to the commission during a public comment section at its meeting at Laurel Park. The seat closure issue is not currently on the commission’s agenda.
“They regulate the horse racing industry and therefore it’s extraordinarily relevant that they take up the issue of the closure of the northern grandstand and the fact that we still don't have the full” engineer’s report, Rosenberg said.
The Stronach Group has declined to release the report on the grounds that it’s still reviewing the findings.
The company announced its decision to close the section April 13, just days after Maryland lawmakers ended the 2019 legislative session without passing a Stronach-backed bill to invest state funds at Laurel Park instead of Pimlico. Rosenberg and others said they should have known about the report while they were debating the legislation.
City inspectors who confirmed the unsafe conditions of the 125-year-old section this week declined to release the portion of the report they received, citing an ongoing city lawsuit against Stronach.
A Baltimore official said the closure could have been averted if the company had invested more in the upkeep of the grandstand.
“There are areas of the Old Grandstand exhibiting deterioration or damage because of years of neglect and deferred maintenance,” said Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman with Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “The report indicates that further deterioration will continue, and in some cases even accelerate, if the owners continue to leave these matters unaddressed.”
A Stronach Group executive expressed frustration that the city had not trusted the company’s independent engineering report and disputed that any level of investment at Pimlico could have properly renovated a facility that state and city officials have known for years needs to be demolished and rebuilt.
“The deterioration of the [Old Grandstand] is a direct consequence of being exposed to the elements of weather for more than 125 years,” said Bill Hecht, CEO of Stronach’s U.S. real estate operations. “It is not related to any issue of maintenance.”
Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young reiterated the city’s position Wednesday that neglect by Stronach is responsible for Pimlico’s ramshackle conditions and that the company wants to move Preakness out of Baltimore.
Hecht called Young’s comments a “false narrative that the facilities have been neglected.”
Two weeks ago, Stronach announced that the “Concourse Box” and “Concourse Reserved” seats located in the Old Grandstand will not be accessible to the tens of thousands of fans set to flood Baltimore for Black-eyed Susan Day on May 17 and the 144th running of the Preakness the next day. Ticket holders have until May 1 to exchange their seats.
Baltimore officials do not perform regular inspections of the grandstand or other structures at Pimlico, but building and electrical inspectors do examine temporary structures such as tents, stages and additional seating constructing for the Preakness.
“As permits are applied for, we will revisit the site to ensure that the facility is fit for the intended use and that occupancy measures are sufficient, and all safety standards are being met,” Hawley said.
City engineers also will be further reviewing the jockey club’s engineering report “to provide their own assessment of the findings and recommendations,” she added.
Hecht said the company expected the city’s findings “to be aligned with the independent engineering firm Faisant Associates and consistent with the Maryland Stadium Authority which concluded that Pimlico Race Course is ‘antiquated and in need of substantial renovations or complete redevelopment.’”
A recent report released by the stadium authority suggested demolishing Pimlico and rebuilding it at a cost of $424 million.
The 6,670 seats represent nearly 47 percent of the approximately 14,000 seats in Pimlico’s traditional structures — the Clubhouse, Main Grandstand, Old Grandstand and Sports Palace — and make up about 17.5 percent of the overall seated capacity of nearly 38,000 people at Old Hilltop, according to Pimlico’s website. An additional 82,000 people are estimated to fit in standing room and infield areas.
The Stronach Group has been criticized by city and state elected officials for spending the bulk of state subsidies and its own money on maintenance and upgrades at Laurel instead of at Pimlico. The Canadian company wants to move all of its racing to Laurel where it hopes to build a “super track” with a nearby Bowie facility. The expanded, modern operation eventually would host the Preakness and could attract other high-profile races such as the Breeders’ Cup.
The company’s effort to get the General Assembly to pass a new funding mechanism to support that vision failed earlier this month after Baltimore-area lawmakers mounted a successful resistance fueled by their desire to keep Preakness at Pimlico.
A Maryland law passed in 1987 requires that the Preakness — the second leg in racing’s Triple Crown — can be moved from Pimlico “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”
The lawsuit states that Stronach’s strategy of investing more in Laurel Park than at Pimlico “could indeed manufacture an ‘emergency or disaster’ to justify transfer of the Preakness to Laurel, as undermaintained infrastructure begins to fail and crowds attending Pimlico races and the horses racing there are endangered.”