It is a curious coincidence that at a time when Baltimore is struggling mightily to forge a new identity, the city’s major sports entities are all in the process of doing the same.
Of course, it’s a risky business conflating the life-and-death problems of a city in perpetual crisis with the issues facing the largest entities that provide its sports entertainment. But the survival of the Preakness and the future success of the Orioles and Ravens could play a significant role in the civic renaissance Baltimore so badly needs.
This era of reinvention has already started for our two major sports teams. The Orioles made the dynamic decision last summer to dismantle the veteran team that had reached the playoffs three times in a five-year period from 2012 to 2016 and rebuild it from the ground up.
The Ravens also made the decision to move on from the Joe Flacco era right in the middle of last season and have already committed to a new offensive identity centered on exciting young quarterback Lamar Jackson.
In both cases, there was general agreement that each team was at a crossroads and it was time to change direction. The Orioles were left no choice when a supposed playoff contender collapsed during the final month of the 2017 season and remained in a downward spiral last year that carried them to their worst record ever.
The Ravens originally planned to make a gradual transition when they traded back into the first round of last year’s draft to choose Jackson, but the timetable was accelerated when Flacco went down with a hip injury in November.
The Preakness presents a different narrative, since there is no general agreement on anything yet. The Stronach Group has made it clear it wants to move the second jewel of the Triple Crown series from Pimlico to Laurel Park and has begun actively angling toward that.
The Maryland Stadium Authority released a study in December that recommended the redevelopment of the ancient racetrack into a multi-use facility that would serve as a centerpiece of an ambitious plan to revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods.
It is against this uncertain backdrop that we head into Preakness Week with this year’s race also suffering from its own identity crisis. The Kentucky Derby is supposed to send a Triple Crown candidate to Baltimore every year, but there will be none for the first time since 1996.
The controversial disqualification of strong Triple Crown candidate Maximum Security and the illness-related withdrawal of replacement Derby winner Country House has created a why-should-anyone-watch scenario at a time when the city could have used a week of positive national publicity.
It’ll still be a fun time for the local folks. The annual six-figure crowd is made up largely of casual horse racing fans and infield revelers who trek to Pimlico because it’s the biggest party of the year in Maryland. For the older clubhouse crowd, it’s also a throwback to the time when horse racing really was the sport of kings and Baltimore was considered one of America’s most important cities.
If the Stronachs succeed in moving the race to Laurel Park, it will be the end of all that, and the beginning of something new and harder to define. They envision a smaller, tonier crowd riding a new rail line to a racetrack that is already in the process of being redeveloped.
There is no question that Laurel is a far more attractive racetrack than Pimlico. The owners have rebuilt the barn complex, added fan-friendly amenities throughout the facility and already created a state-of-the-art sports bar space in anticipation of legalized sports betting.
When that upgrade program and residential redevelopment is complete, it will be even harder to make a case against moving the Preakness out of Baltimore unless the state and city move decisively to create a workable plan to restore or replace its crumbling home.
There is no guarantee the Orioles will be a World Series contender in five years or that Jackson and company will lead the Ravens back to the Super Bowl, but both teams have a specific plan and neither is likely to leave town in the foreseeable future.
Reinventing Old Hilltop might be a tough sell, but the time for just talking about it is running out.