Sal Sinatra, GM of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, says he'll have a clear picture by year's end about the future of the Preakness at Pimlico. (Jon Meoli/Baltimore Sun)
The general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club said before the running of the 140th Preakness on Saturday that as much as he'd prefer to keep the race in Baltimore, it might make more sense to move it to Laurel.
"Right now, I'd say Laurel is in the lead [to host the Preakness]," said Sal Sinatra, who came to Maryland last year from Florida, where he helped oversee the renovation of Gulfstream Park. "My goal is to try and not let that happen. ... I don't think it's the last Preakness here, that's for sure."
Still, it might be inevitable, Sinatra said. Laurel Park, built in 1911 and far from state-of-the-art, is much more updated than Pimlico Race Course, which was built in 1870 and is the second oldest track in the country, behind Saratoga Springs.
"This building is old, you just can't add suites to it," Sinatra said of Pimlico. "It's almost a rebuild here, where Laurel is a pretty healthy building. Laurel you can renovate, so that plays into it as well. ... Obviously, we have more acreage over at Laurel than we do here."
Wherever the Stronach Group Racing and Gaming company decides to rebuild, renovations would likely begin in "June or July", said Sinatra, who is in his second year with the Maryland Jockey Club and presiding over his first Preakness.
Sinatra said that he and Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, have met with community members about keeping the Preakness in Park Heights, where it has been held since 1873. The company is also considering moving Preakness from Saturday to Sunday, perhaps as early as next year.
"They really do enjoy this place," Sinatra said of those who live in the surrounding neighborhood. "I thought if there was any trouble [in the aftermatch of the riots that broke out following the death of Freddie Gray], they [the locals] might actually be guarding this place, they love it so much."
As Monique Williams stood in the middle of Winner Avenue Saturday morning, hoping that she and her 10-year-old daughter, Demi, could entice fans to buy some lemonade and maybe get some cars to park in the courtyard behind her house, a reporter mentioned the possibility of moving the race.
"Why?" said Williams, a 30-year-old private nurse who grew up adjacent to the track. "They should keep it here, period. It helps our neighborhood out instead of moving it all the way out to Laurel. I didn't know they were planning on moving it."
Williams said it goes beyond the activity and potential income Preakness brings to her and others in the neighborhood. After nearly two decades of viewing the third Saturday in May as Christmas in spring, Williams said that moving the race to Laurel would deprive her children and others the opportunity "to sell their little things."
Given the history of the race being held in Baltimore, Williams said that "Laurel wouldn't be nothing if it wasn't for Pimlico first. It's very historical. If you take the historical away from us, what would we have then? If you take everything away from us, we would never have nothing."
Rufus Wade, a 58-year-old retired postal worker from Atlantic City, N.J., who has been coming to the Preakness for "five or six years in a row" would not like to see the race moved from Saturday for one simple reason – he doesn't place bets on Sunday, which means he wouldn't be at the race track.
"Not on Sunday, unless I come as an owner," Wade said.
Wade's 31-year-old daughter, Courtney Vaughn, of Bowie, said moving to Laurel would make it easier for her to get to the racetrack and the issue of gambling would not come into play she since doesn't bet on the horses, anyway. Still, Vaughn said she would "prefer it on Saturday."
So would Taylor Howard, a 24-year-old budding photographer from Westminster who comes more to take pictures of the races than to bet on them.
"Black-Eyed Susan on Friday, everybody can come out on Saturday, it's a lot easier on that day," said Howard, who has also been coming for about five years. "Tradition, scheduling, Sunday is sort of a take-it-easy kind of day and everybody is getting for work the next day. Maybe I've just gotten used to it."
Howard would also like the Preakness to remain at Pimlico.
"It's always been at Pimlico, the history is what it's about," Howard said as she watched one of early races Saturday from the first row of the grandstand terrace.
For some of those steeped in Maryland racing, there's no sense in changing the Preakness tradition.
Barbara Boniface was with her then-boyfriend, now husband Billy Boniface, when his horse, Deputed Testamony, won the Preakness in 1983. She's been part of the local racing community since, and said talk of moving the race isn't well received among horsemen.
"I think they want it to stay the same," Boniface said. "Thoroughbred horse racing is based on tradition. It's very rooted that way, and they like things to stay the same.
"I think the tradition should stay Preakness Saturday. [It's] just the tradition. That's the way it's been. Everybody loves it that way. We have fun here. It's the people's party, the people's race."
Boniface had ventured out from the Infield Village with friend Debi Glassman, wife of Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. It was Glassman's first Preakness, and she couldn't have imagined it not being held on the traditional Saturday date.
"I just think, 'why change tradition?'" she said. "So many people have memories with the infield. Is that going to be the same when they go to Laurel? Are they going to let them do that? Just leave it the way it is."
Bill Witte, who has been to countless Preakness days with his wife, Carol, also said there shouldn't be any change. They remember the days when the infield was just one hospitality tent and a mass of revelers, and have toned down their Preakness experience now, but that doesn't mean it should change for others.
"It's got to stay here, and it's got to be on Saturday," Witte said. The Sparks residents come to Pimlico a few days a year outside of Preakness, and suggested that if they want Sunday racing that badly, the Black Eyed Susan — which is Maryland's premier race for 3-year-old fillies, should move from Friday to Sunday.
"If they move to Laurel, it's just sad," Witte said. "I realize the problem here is location, location, location."
Those who don't want the Preakness moved, either chronologically or geographically, have one important ally — at least for the next 31/2 years. As he stood on the jockey terrace watching the races Saturday, Maryland governor Larry Hogan weighed in on what is surely to become a hot-button issue.
"It's just critically important for the Preakness to stay here in Maryland," Hogan said. "It's part of our history and culture, and we're going to keep it here in Baltimore."