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Horse Racing

Jockey club official on possible Preakness move to Laurel: 'I hope sane heads will prevail'

If the Preakness moves from Baltimore to Laurel, it will not be done in the dead of night to the shock and dismay of its longtime fans, Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra said Saturday.

"I'm just happy everyone's finally talking about it," Sinatra said to reporters at Pimlico Race Course, hours before the start of the 142nd Preakness Stakes. "It's going to come to a head later this year. All I keep telling everyone is, 'We're not the Baltimore Colts.' We're not just bolting and going to Laurel. I hope sane heads will prevail."

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While Sinatra said that a viability study by the Maryland Stadium Authority looking into the possible move has reached "the second phase" involving both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine E.  Pugh, there are still positives about Pimlico, including possibly drawing a record crowd to the Preakness for the fourth straight year. Sinatra said that Saturday's crowd was "a little ahead of pace from last year," which drew more than 135,000 fans.

"Obviously, with the weather, it's going to help," Sinatra said. "And they're still streaming in. And the handle's up about [$]600,[000] and change right now. The Preakness really is going to tell the whole thing. Last year was $55 million, so when you see that number come up, that's what's going to say if we're up or down for the day."

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The lure of fans will not be the deciding factor, Sinatra said.

"Every time I come here I feel melancholy, I feel history, you get that," Sinatra said. "But it's an economic decision."

It will reportedly cost The Stronach Group, the Ontario, Canada-based company that owns both Pimlico and Laurel, between $300 million and $500 million to rebuild the 147-year-old Baltimore horseracing landmark.

Sinatra said that "everyone is going to try and get there," but doubted that it could be done at the lower end of the projections.

"Personally I think $300 million is a low number," Sinatra said. "I think that $300 million number was refacing. … What we're doing at Laurel, making it pretty, and doing that here is going to be a lot more difficult. … The bathrooms, the ADA compliance. We can't build anything higher on this building. Just peeling it off and putting new skin on it is not going to be to anybody's satisfaction."

The size of the two facilities comes into play, with Laurel's 260 acres nearly double that of Pimlico's 140.

"That's where the horses are, that's really what it's become, where the horses are staged and where all the horsemen are is really down there," Sinatra said. "Yesterday, I had 27 scratches. Other than being hot, there was no reason. 'Schlepping over here, fighting the crowd, I'm 20-1. I'm not coming because I'm shipping.' It's easier if people are on the grounds."

Asked if the infield scene seemed a little tamer Saturday than it has in recent years, Sinatra attributed it to the fact that the headliner was country western star Sam Hunt.

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"I think it's more of a country crowd," Sinatra said. "We've done EDM [electronic dance music] the last couple of years. … I won't say it's an older crowd, but it's a more polished crowd I guess?"

Laurel is reportedly also trying to attract the Breeders' Cup for 2018, which if successful could further fuel the push of the Preakness there.

"I think they're two different events, obviously," Sinatra said. "The Breeders' Cup is really a whole racing [event], where everyone comes to see the best of the best. We always think Preakness here is a celebration and a party. This is Baltimore's race, Maryland's race, whatever. It's two unique things. Obviously if you pull one off, you should be able to pull off the other."

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56     


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