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Study of Preakness' future at Pimlico due Friday

The Maryland Stadium Authority will release a long-awaited report on the future of Pimlico Race Course on Friday, with lawmakers and racing officials hoping the study will spur serious discussion about the site's long-term viability as home of the Preakness.

Though the report is only the first part of a larger study, it's expected to include specific estimates for how much it would cost to make the venerable Baltimore track economically competitive with the homes of the other Triple Crown horse races — the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

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The report will not recommend a specific course of action. Instead, racing officials and lawmakers say it will serve as a jumping-off point for talks about the future of the track and whether it can continue accommodating the Preakness.

"I'm very hopeful this will lead to fruitful discussion," said Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico. "The horses are nearing the starting gate, and we have a golden opportunity to move forward on this issue."

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Officials at the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, are eager for the conversation to progress. They say the need for a more modern facility grows more urgent every year.

"I'm excited that we're talking about it and not just kicking the can down the road," said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the Stronach Group's racing division. "Something's going to have to happen. Some tough decisions will need to be made."

The debate has been put off for years because of the anticipated hefty price tag of building a modern facility at Pimlico.

Ritvo said it would not make economic sense for the Stronach Group to foot the entire bill for a facility that won't be used for most of the year (Pimlico will host just 12 days of racing in 2017). But it's unclear whether state leaders would be willing to take on the financial burden.

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Rosenberg said he's optimistic a public-private partnership could get the project rolling. Ritvo said the Stronach Group could find that amenable.

The stadium authority launched its study last spring with the backing of state legislators, the Stronach Group and the Maryland Racing Commission, an appointed panel that regulates the industry. The authority, the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Maryland Jockey Club (owned by the Stronach Group) shared the $175,000 cost of the study's first phase.

Looming over the debate is the possibility of moving Preakness to Laurel, where the Stronach Group has spent millions of dollars on improvements over the past two years. The company has already shifted spring racing dates from Pimlico to Laurel, and Ritvo has said the newer facility could accommodate the Preakness.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh are among the elected officials who've said the race should not leave the city.

"I haven't had a conversation with a single one of my colleagues who wants to see the race moved," Rosenberg said.

But Stronach Group officials counter that they can't keep running the state's most important and lucrative race at a badly dilapidated facility. Every year, they worry a catastrophic problem could arise in the run-up to the Preakness.

They point to previous mishaps, such as a problem with water pressure that led toilets to stop working during the 2015 race, as warning signs.

Ritvo said revenue from the Preakness is also severely hampered because Pimlico cannot support modern luxury suites. Such premium seating has been key to the rapid economic growth of the Kentucky Derby in recent years.

State law says the race can be moved to another track in the state "only as a result of a disaster or emergency." So the Stronach Group would likely need legislative backing to stage a Preakness in Laurel.

As an event, the Preakness has thrived in recent years. The race drew a record crowd of 135,256 in 2016 and also set a record for betting handle at $94.1 million. The second jewel in the Triple Crown series has been held at Pimlico since 1873.

After Friday's release, lawmakers and racing officials will decide whether to order a second phase of the stadium authority study, which would produce recommendations for redeveloping Pimlico.

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