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Preakness to be run without fans as Maryland continues to cope with coronavirus pandemic

Add the Oct. 3 Preakness to the list of major sports events that will be held without fans as Maryland continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

The race, which drew an announced crowd of 131,256 to Pimlico Race Course in 2019, could anoint a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 145 runnings in a reshuffled series. But if Tiz the Law becomes the 14th 3-year-old thoroughbred to join that club, he’ll do so in front of an empty infield and a silent grandstand.

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“The Stronach Group and the Maryland Jockey Club have been working closely in consultation with local and state health and governmental authorities for the past several months to thoughtfully and safely plan for Preakness 145,” Belinda Stronach, Chairman and President, The Stronach Group and 1/ST, said in a statement Wednesday. “While we had hoped to be able to welcome fans as we have for the past 145 years, the health and safety of our guests, horsemen, riders, team members and the community at large is, and will always be, our top priority.”

Existing ticket holders will be able to request full refunds or transfer their purchases to tickets for the 2021 Preakness. NBC’s broadcast of the race will begin at 4:30 p.m.

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The announcement by the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, The Stronach Group, was not a surprise, despite positive recent trends in Maryland’s bout with the virus. The Ravens announced last week that they will not host fans at early-season games. Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will be held at an empty Churchill Downs after race organizers held out hope for a crowd until two weeks before the event.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday that Baltimore City and the state’s counties could allow all businesses to reopen, including theaters, and permit more people to attend indoor events, such as worship services. Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said Wednesday that the city won’t move into Stage Three of the coronavirus recovery plan announced by the governor, although it will further loosen restrictions in some areas, including restaurants.

Spokespeople for Hogan and Young did not respond to messages seeking comment on the Preakness announcement.

The Stronach Group and the Jockey Club canceled the InfieldFest component of the Preakness in early April and subsequently postponed the race from May 16 to Oct. 3. With the Belmont Stakes run on June 20, also sans fans, and the Derby shifted from May 2 to Sept. 5., the Preakness became the third jewel of a reshuffled Triple Crown series.

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The absence of a crowd will be an economic blow to the event, which supports racing in Maryland for the rest of the year. A 2019 study by the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute said the race would generate $52.7 million in economic activity each year, with more than 90% of the activity projected to occur in the city of Baltimore. The 145th Preakness was shaping up to be a celebratory occasion after The Stronach Group and the Maryland General Assembly agreed to a sweeping rehabilitation plan for venerable Pimlico and its sister track at Laurel Park.

Instead, industry leaders said they’re happy to have a race at all.

“We’re making the best of a very difficult situation,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

It’s hard to know how much impact the loss of revenue will have on day-to-day racing, though Foreman expects The Stronach Group to take a greater hit than the state’s horsemen. The track operator has already promised to maintain at least three days of racing per week at current purse levels as part of a recent agreement to prohibit the use of the anti-bleeding drug Lasix in 2-year-old thoroughbreds.

“You lose your on-track handle, you lose your corporate sales, you lose all the money that is generated at the facility that day,” Foreman said in assessing the damage from a spectator-free Preakness. “We have significant off-track wagering, so the question is: How many of those who would be there that day and wager will show interest in wagering on-line? And maybe there will be interest if Tiz the Law wins the Derby.”

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