Pimlico Race Course advocates, eager to preserve the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, are taking issue with what they call the “fallacy” that it would cost $424 million to rebuild the 149-year-old track — a bill nobody seems willing to pay.
“To say you need that much to rebuild Pimlico I think is just totally wrong,” said Joseph A. De Francis, former CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the track for its owner, The Stronach Group. “No rational person can justify the investment of $424 million into a facility that is going to get used primarily one weekend a year.”
De Francis and others, including racetrack design experts, say a functional Pimlico could be constructed for less than $200 million with temporary luxury seating and hospitality structures akin to those used at major golf tournaments, plus steel bleachers such as those at NASCAR tracks.
“There are racecourses in the world which have few facilities and a lot of temporary activity,” said Paul Roberts of London-based Turnberry Consulting, which specializes in racetrack development. He said there is “no reason a more temporary arrangement could not work for such a special event.”
The $424 million price tag — about $100 million higher than earlier estimates — was contained in a Maryland Stadium Authority study released in December about the future of the “Old Hilltop” track 6 miles northwest of downtown Baltimore.
The study was funded by the Jockey Club, the Baltimore Development Corp., the stadium authority and the City of Baltimore, which is fighting to preserve the iconic race at the Pimlico site.
Stronach has said it wants to build a "super track" at its other Maryland track, Laurel Park, that could host large events such as the Breeders’ Cup and eventually the Preakness.
The stadium authority study outlined an ambitious reconstruction of Pimlico designed to make the track a year-round destination with a variety of uses. It included a four-level, $252 million clubhouse and plaza area called the Palio — named after the Palio di Siena horse race in Italy — and a new track and infield positioned to open the site further to the public.
It said a realignment of the tracks and infield could encourage such private development as a supermarket, a hotel, townhouses, shops, an expanded LifeBridge Health medical campus and other amenities.
According to the stadium authority, the study’s authors collaborated with The Stronach Group on key considerations such as how many spectators a new track should accommodate, and pricing for the event. They also sought input from others, including the city and the public.
The resulting “concept” — as the authority called it — is a “Cadillac” version of a new Pimlico, said Martin Azola, a former vice president of facilities for the Jockey Club.
“The biggest fallacy would be to move [the Preakness] based on a $424 million rebuild. You don’t need to do that. I’m thinking you spend maybe half of that,” said Azola, president of a Baltimore company that handles historic preservation of buildings.
“If $424 million were $250 million, I think it would change the balance of discussion quite substantially,” he said. “My hope is that the parties can find a way to keep Preakness at Pimlico while minimizing operating costs. Win-win.”
The stadium authority declined to make officials available for comment about the study, referring a reporter to a study summary. The summary stated that the authority and its consulting partners teamed with the track owner and operator to develop a program “of seating and hospitality products considered to be ideal for hosting the Preakness Stakes.”
This year’s Preakness is May 18. Stronach says the race — Maryland’s largest and splashiest sporting event — will remain at Pimlico at least through next year.
Under state law, the Preakness can be moved from Pimlico to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency," so the company would need legislative support to move the Preakness to Laurel on any other basis.
The Stronach Group had sought approval in the General Assembly to use state bonds to accelerate improvements at Laurel and a training track in Bowie, but those efforts fizzled on the last day amid opposition from Baltimore legislators.
Baltimore elected officials said last year that they hoped the stadium authority study would suggest a path to preserve the Preakness in the city. City officials consider a rebuilt Pimlico — with the accompanying prestige of the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown — vital to the redevelopment of a distressed area of Baltimore.
In the city’s vision, the sprawling campus would be accessible on nonracing days for social, recreational and other events.
But there are no ongoing talks between the city and Stronach over Pimlico’s future.
Stronach said that’s because the city filed a suit in March asking Baltimore Circuit Court to grant it ownership of the racetrack and the Preakness through condemnation. The suit alleges The Stronach Group is “openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness” to Laurel.
“Under the circumstances, and while the lawsuit is pending, our clients will not negotiate with the City,” Jockey Club attorneys Alan Rifkin and Arnold Weiner said in an April 18 letter to City Solicitor Andre M. Davis.
Stronach asked a judge Wednesday to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the state has exclusive jurisdiction over horse racing.
In a separate statement to The Baltimore Sun, Stronach declined to address whether a substantially lower price tag for a bare-bones Pimlico could make rebuilding it more feasible.
“Decisions about the future of thoroughbred racing in Maryland, which includes Pimlico, must include input and consideration from all stakeholders including the City, State, horsemen and others,” Stronach said. “We are eager to get back to the table for productive discussions and look forward to doing so once the lawsuit that was filed by the City of Baltimore against our company is resolved.”
Said Rifkin, the Jockey Club lawyer: “There’s no shortage of good ideas, but the ultimate questions are how are those ideas going to be funded and do they provide for a sustainable racing industry going forward.”
Instead of operating both tracks, Stronach has said it makes financial sense to consolidate Pimlico and Laurel into one Laurel “super track” — a concept that it said proved successful at the company’s Florida facilities.
Such a track also would draw better from the larger Washington market.
But De Francis said his proposal wouldn’t require Pimlico to be designed for year-round racing — that would remain Laurel’s purpose.
Rather, he said, “you can design Pimlico to specifically house a two-week meet that culminates with the Preakness and is designed for a crowd of 150,000.”
With NASCAR-style seating, temporary structures and other amenities, he said, “you can do all that without making a capital investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in concrete and steel.”
De Francis is retired but remains active in horse racing affairs. He said keeping Pimlico “at its historic home” is in the best interests of the city, the state and horse racing generally.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, had no comment about De Francis’ ideas or whether Young favors continuing the lawsuit against Stronach.
The suit was initiated during the administration of the former mayor, Catherine Pugh, who resigned May 2 amid a growing scandal over her sales of a self-published children’s book series.
State Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, said he is interested in what De Francis and others are proposing.
“I think all of us who want to preserve the Preakness at Pimlico are certainly open to that discussion,” Rosenberg said.
“If there is a way to do this that lowers the cost and still keeps our objective of keeping the Preakness and transforming the site into a model redevelopment for the neighborhood, then sure,” he said.
Pimlico is where Man o' War romped to victory in the 1920 Preakness and the first tote board was introduced in 1933. Seabiscuit upset War Admiral there in a 1938 match race, and Secretariat overwhelmed the Preakness field in 1973.
But many of the track’s structures are antiquated, and the Jockey Club recently said it was closing off 6,670 seats in the Old Grandstand’s open-air section for the Preakness because they are “no longer suitable to sustain that level of load-bearing weight.”
Pimlico, Stronach said in a recent letter to state elected officials, “has reached the end of its useful life as a major event venue.”