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'It would break my heart if this track closed': Ahead of Preakness, trainers call Pimlico backstretch 'home'

Willie Kee, a horse trainer based at Pimlico talks about how closing Pimlico would affect many people who work at the track. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Trainers and others who call Pimlico Race Course home say they are worrying not only about the track’s future, but also about how much they should say publicly at a time when the owner appears to have its sights set on consolidating racing at Laurel Park.

“It would break my heart if this track closed,” said Dorothy Worton, 39, a Pimlico-based trainer. “I try not to gripe outwardly. They do give you free stalls.”

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The Stronach Group, Pimlico’s owner, says the “Old Hilltop” track has reached the end of its useful life as a venue for the Preakness and other events. The Canadian company wants to build a “super track” at Laurel Park that could host large events such as the Breeders’ Cup and eventually the Preakness.

More than 100 or so trainers, stable hands, exercise riders and others are based at Pimlico’s old brick barns, most of them along the backstretch.

“There are certain things you just can’t talk about,” said Willie Kee, 60, another Pimlico trainer who nevertheless agreed to be interviewed three days before the Preakness Stakes about his fervent hope that some version of the faded, 149-year-old track will remain in Northwest Baltimore.

“You’re the first person that came to Pimlico that actually talked to us,” said Kee, who grew up in Baltimore. “If you read any article … they’re not talking to the people that’s actually here. They don’t want to hear the part that we love Pimlico, we want to be at Pimlico. We’re settled here, we live here, this is our home.”

Interviewed as their horses sprinted around the dirt track on a brilliant morning, some trainers said they feel caught between wanting to rally around Pimlico and feeling skittish about potentially crossing the track owner, which does provide them stalls for free.

Podcast: Should the Preakness stay in Baltimore?

“Our livelihood depends on business at their property,” said one trainer who declined to be named publicly out of caution. “It’s a tough situation, to be frank.”

No decision has been made about the track’s fate, Stronach says. But the company has said it makes financial sense to consolidate Pimlico and Laurel into one Laurel venue — a concept that it said proved successful at the company’s Florida facilities.

The company declined Wednesday to address what might happen to the trainers, grooms and other backstretch workers if Pimlico closed, or whether it cared that they were expressing concerns.

“Our focus is on the Preakness and on delivering an incredible experience for our horsemen and guests,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the company’s racing division, in a statement. “TSG is proud to be part of this great Maryland tradition, and we look forward to continuing the tradition for years to come. Our company is eager to continue discussions with all stakeholders.”

Pimlico’s trainers occupy a village of sorts — the mostly out-of-view backstretch is behind a security gate. It is home to 10 brick barns with cinder-block horse stalls and dirt-and-sawdust floors.

The Preakness comes and goes — Saturday will be the 144th running — but trainers such as Kee, Worton and Kieron Magee are almost always at the track before dawn, tending to their horses and watching the sun rise over the venue.

“All of the people who are here don’t want it to go anywhere,” said Magee, 58, who regularly shuttles between his Baltimore County farm, Pimlico — where his dozens of horses are stabled — and Laurel Park for races. “If Pimlico goes, all the history goes with it.”

Magee said there could be risk in speaking out because “they can tell you to leave the stalls anytime.” But, he said, it was important to do so because “Pimlico is my home.”

Worton, who trains about 15 horses, said abandoning Pimlico would mean losing its rich history and the infield experience shared by revelers during the Preakness.

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“I don’t think Laurel can duplicate what Pimlico has to offer,” she said.

Because the infield at Laurel is part of a stormwater management system, the track could not host Pimlico-style concerts at the center of the oval track. At Laurel, a concert and picnic area likely would be to the side.

Pimlico’s trainers don’t live at the track, but scores of other workers do — in cramped rooms on some of the barns’ second floors. They exercise the horses, cool them down, groom them and clean their stalls. Most make in the range of a few hundred dollars to $600 or so per week.

“It’s a lot of trainers, hot walkers, grooms, exercise riders that live on the grounds. So if the place closes, where are they going to go?” Kee said. “A lot of people would be disenfranchised.”

Because Pimlico has just 12 racing days, the trainers based there frequently transport their horses to Laurel and, occasionally, other tracks to compete.

Stronach has said the Preakness — the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown and 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.

Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, has said closing Pimlico would be “a very sad occasion,” but that times have changed and it might not be economically possible to sustain the Baltimore track.

A 2018 Maryland Stadium Authority study said it could cost $424 million to rebuild Pimlico for racing and as a year-round destination with a variety of uses, though some Pimlico advocates argue it wouldn’t need to cost that much.

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.

Stronach has asked a judge to dismiss the case, countering that the state has exclusive jurisdiction over Maryland racing.

“Under the circumstances, and while the lawsuit is pending, our clients will not negotiate with the City,” wrote Maryland Jockey Club attorneys Alan Rifkin and Arnold Weiner in an April 18 letter to City Solicitor Andre M. Davis. The Jockey Club operates the track for Stronach.

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