Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the racing division of the Stronach Group, talks about the company's investment in Laurel Park. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
Imagine a crowd of 75,000 — not the record-setting 135,000 of last year — with patrons dressed in casual-chic clothing streaming into $1,000-a-head luxury suites.
Imagine an empty infield, with a concert and picnic area pushed to the side rather than roaring in the center of the track.
Imagine looking out from the grandstand and seeing suburban strip malls and apartment complexes rather than the skyline of downtown Baltimore.
This is the vision of a Preakness held at Laurel Park instead of the race's traditional home at Pimlico Race Course.
As preparations accelerate for the 142nd Preakness this weekend, state and city officials, along with the owner of Maryland two major tracks, are busy discussing whether Pimlico has a future. But if no public or private entity steps forward to pay for a rebuild or significant renovation of the dilapidated facility — price tag starting at a minimum of $250 million, according to the first phase of a Maryland Stadium Authority study released in February — there could soon be serious debate about moving the state's largest sporting event to Laurel.
"We will wait to see what happens in Baltimore. If there's an appetite for the state to build a new stadium there, we're all in," says Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the racing division of the Stronach Group, which owns both Pimlico and Laurel Park. "But if not, we have a backup plan."
Ritvo says there's no question a renovated Laurel Park could host an exciting and profitable Preakness.
Baltimore officials say that would be a terrible blow to the city and the tradition of the race.
"It would be a totally different event," says state Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico. "It would be a painful decision what to do on Preakness day if the event were in Laurel. I've been going since I was a teenager."
Current state law says the Stronach Group could move the race to another track in Maryland "only as a result of disaster or emergency." And elected officials, from Gov. Larry Hogan to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, have said the Preakness should remain where it is.
Hogan said Tuesday that he wants to keep the Preakness in Baltimore and is willing to work out a deal if the price is right.
But with the Stadium Authority study of Pimlico's future headed for a second phase, no one has stepped forward with a plan to finance a renovation or rebuild of the venerable facility.
What price tradition?
Ritvo says the Stronach Group, which has already put millions of dollars into making Laurel Park the headquarters of Maryland racing, will not foot the bill. "Putting that kind of money into a second stadium just is not possible for our company," he says.
A move to Laurel would likely prompt strong reactions in the wider world of racing, which cherishes its history and looks to the Triple Crown series as the highlight of every season.
"For those of us who love the history of the sport, it just seems inappropriate for that race to be run outside of Baltimore," says Bennett Liebman, a lawyer-in-residence at Albany Law School and a scholar of racing law and history.
That said, Liebman notes the history of the Triple Crown races isn't as sacrosanct as some fans probably imagine. The Belmont Stakes was run at Aqueduct Racetrack from 1963 to 1967 after the stands at Belmont Park were condemned in 1962. And a version of the Preakness — a less prestigious affair that bore little resemblance to the modern race — was run in Brooklyn from 1894 until 1908.
"It's not the end of the world, certainly not as bad as if the race left Maryland," Liebman says of a possible Preakness at Laurel. "But it would be the loss of a significant tradition."
The subject is bound to stir powerful emotions, says Anirban Basu, an economist with the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group who has studied the Maryland racing industry. But in pure financial terms, he agrees with Ritvo that the Preakness could thrive at Laurel Park.
"I'm not advocating one way or another, but I don't see any reason the race would not work much better at Laurel," Basu says. "It's a more upscale track, the MARC station is right there, there's more parking and it's in closer proximity to BWI and the D.C. airports. I very strongly believe the race at Laurel would be a more upscale affair that would attract more well-heeled patrons from around the nation and the world."
On the other hand, the event would sacrifice some of its tradition and its quirky juxtaposition of corporate tents and college debauchery on the infield, he says.
"It would be more of a corporate race at Laurel," he says. "At Pimlico, it's more of a populist affair."
For now, the move remains a theoretical proposition. It's not as if elected leaders in Laurel are campaigning for the Preakness.
"It's a good community event, and we would support it," says Laurel Mayor Craig Moe. "But I know Baltimore would not like to lose it, and I understand that."
The track falls outside of Laurel's incorporated limits, and Moe says he's never had discussions with Stronach officials about the possibility of a Laurel Preakness. But he says the area could accommodate the traffic and public safety demands created by such a large event.
Ritvo is a former jockey and trainer well-versed in the history of the sport. He says he likes working in Maryland precisely because the state's attachment to racing is old and deep. But he says the hard reality is that Pimlico's decrepit state is limiting the financial potential of the Preakness.
The Stronach Group hopes to close the massive revenue gap that has opened between the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby. Officials at Churchill Downs in Louisville have squeezed significantly more money out of their signature race in recent years, in large part because of a $170 million, multiphase renovation that began in 2001 and continues to this day. That redesign has allowed Churchill to increase overall attendance but more importantly, to charge premium prices for newly created suites and boxes.
The renovation added 79 luxury suites overlooking the homestretch of the track and converted the facility's former media center into a 296-seat space known as the Mansion, where Derby-day tickets run more than $8,000 on average. Track officials also capitalized by selling personal seat licenses, a product normally associated with the NFL and other mainstream sports with high demand for tickets.
Churchill does not release revenue and profit figures for the Derby specifically. But a report in the Louisville Courier-Journal said the track increased Derby-week profits by $15.3 million between 2008 and 2013. And Churchill Downs Inc. reported record net revenue of $1.3 billion in 2016.
The Stronach Group desperately wants to do something similar with the Preakness, but Ritvo says it's impossible at Pimlico because the buildings aren't in good enough shape to support substantial renovations. At Laurel Park, however, the company has already begun a sweeping effort to create more luxury seating.
The track now includes 30 boxes along the glass facade of the clubhouse and a 200-seat area known as the Director's Room, which features clubby leather and wood furniture, bookshelves and a full bar.
But Ritvo says those features are mere teasers of what's to come. He envisions adding 40 sky suites with 20 seats in each. In all, he hopes to create more than 10,000 premium seats, with the cost of a meal built into the ticket price for big events.
He wants to find a developer to build a hotel in place of the squat, crumbling buildings in the track's old barn area. Those barns are already being phased out in favor of airy new structures, with 120-150 stalls each and sparkling white exteriors that catch the eye from across the track.
Ritvo wants to build an entertainment amphitheater beside the track that would feature 5,000 fixed seats and perhaps another 5,000 lawn seats, with sightlines to the racing action.
He sees all this renovation, which he says would take about two years, dovetailing with a massive mixed-used development planned around the MARC rail station adjacent to the track.
For now, his ideas are geared to attracting the Breeders' Cup, the most lucrative two-day event in American racing, to Laurel Park in either 2020 or 2021.
"People say, 'Ahh, they're doing all this because they want to move the Preakness,' " Ritvo says. "But the reality is we're doing it because it has to be done."
At the same time, he does not deny the obvious subtext: If Laurel Park is good enough for the Breeders' Cup, it might also be a suitable home for the Preakness.