No amount of beautiful dresses and gorgeous hats at the 144th Preakness Stakes could brighten the sour faces of female fans enduring long lines for the few restrooms still working, one clear sign of the massive investment needed to rebuild Pimlico. Then, far above the fray, a small plane pulled a sign that displayed the stakes playing out between city officials who are fighting to keep Preakness in Baltimore and The Stronach Group, the Canadian company that wants to shutter Pimlico and move the party to Laurel Park.
“Stronach Keep Preakness in Baltimore,” read the sign, paid for by a political communications firm, KO Public Affairs.
The culmination of Maryland’s biggest racing weekend did little to dispel fears about the track and the sport.
For the record, War of Will won, after going off at 6-1 odds, before an estimated attendance of 131,256, a slight dip from the 2018 total of 134,487 that had ended four years of growing crowd size. Those fans were equally captivated by Bodexpress, who continued down the track after tossing its rider.
If ever the bad blood that has been simmering between Stronach and the city this year needed a soundtrack, Emo-rap sensation Juice WRLD delivered the right mix by leading the InfieldFest audience in a singalong of his chart-topping song “Death Race for Love” and prompting audience members to raise their middle fingers in unison.
Some feared the day would be spoiled by rain or another tragedy: A horse had died at Friday’s Black Eyed Susan Day.
Yet, for one day at least, the state’s dignitaries put on their best faces and enjoyed an afternoon.
“This is an incredible day for Maryland,” said Gov. Larry Hogan. “People all over the world are watching.”
The Republican governor said he would prefer to see Preakness remain at Pimlico, where he was simultaneously hosting a fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association on Saturday.
“I’ve said all along I’d rather see it stay here in Baltimore,” Hogan said. “We’re certainly hopeful that cooler heads can prevail.”
He then said he was expecting to meet with Stronach officials and Baltimore’s new Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Saturday and that he was hopeful that discussions could move forward despite the lingering legal fight between the two sides.
The city is suing Stronach in an attempt to take control of Pimlico and Preakness through condemnation proceedings. Many city officials have said they fear that Stronach officials have been letting Pimlico fall into disrepair so that an emergency could be declared about the track’s condition — the only way that state law will allow Preakness to move out of Baltimore.
Stronach’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo said the age of Pimlico makes it difficult to maintain Pimlico, which state studies have said should be torn down and rebuilt. The company had to close nearly 7,000 seats a month before Preakness because that portion of the track was no longer safe to hold the weight of fans.
“It gets tougher every year to give the experience that the customer deserves for an event like this,” Ritvo said, saying broken pipes are a common occurrence. “It’s just old infrastructure.”
Many fans at Preakness and at Friday’s Black Eyed Susan Day said that every malfunction and inconvenience with food, restrooms and other amenities all benefit Stronach’s desire to make Laurel Park appear to be a more appealing venue.
Dawn Siecker said she has attended Preakness for the past 10 years and that she has never had a worse experience.
“It makes me upset,” Siecker said. “It’s just sad when this is the state of the racetrack.”
Siecker wishes more money had been put into the track to try and fix the issues.
“This stuff didn’t happen overnight,” she said. “The grandstands, the toilets — they didn’t just randomly start crumbling and breaking.”
Not every attendee complained about the conditions. Some lamented the lack of a Triple Crown contender.
Sherri Growden has been coming to Preakness for 19 years. And though every year it’s exciting, this year was a little different than others.
“The winner of the Kentucky Derby wasn’t here,” said Growden, 56, of Bedford, Pennsylvania. “It wasn’t as exciting as a potential Triple Crown, but it was much nicer weather.”
But the infrastructure issues were the biggest concern, even among racing enthusiasts.
Gladston James, 80, is an avid fan of horse racing and has been coming to Preakness for 35 years, he said. He fell in love with horses as a boy growing up in Jamaica, when his neighbor would take him to a track in Montego Bay.
For years, James had reserved seats in Pimlico’s grandstand and became close enough with the people who sat around him that they often packed each other food for the event.
Three years ago, James wrote two letters to Pimlico officials to complain that the stands were in poor condition. He warned he would give up his reserved seats if no improvements were made, a threat he had to follow through on.
The Silver Spring resident said he frequently visits the track in Laurel and that he’s looking forward to Preakness moving there.
“I won’t miss it,” he said of Pimlico. “I understand the economic reasons to stay here, but in reality they’re losing crowds.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Thalia Juarez, McKenna Oxenden, Sameer Rao, Lillian Reed, Nathan Ruiz and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.