For those who believe the unfortunate chain of events that rocked the Triple Crown series over the past couple of weeks will be the death of the Preakness in Baltimore, consider the possibility that it might be just the opposite.
The transparent attempt by The Stronach Group recently to change the working description of Pimlico Race Course from dilapidated to unsafe certainly bolstered the company’s argument for moving the second jewel of the Triple Crown to a heavily upgraded Laurel Park.
The disqualification of Triple Crown candidate Maximum Security on Saturday tarnished the Kentucky Derby and robbed the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes of the suspense that fuels the three-race center of the horse racing universe.
And, on the more local level, the decision by the owners of Derby winner Country House and Maximum Security to bypass Baltimore is threatening to turn the Preakness into a rock festival that just happens to have a horse race attached to it.
So, why wouldn’t all this be just another big nail in the coffin of Baltimore’s signature sporting event?
Well, it might, but it also should serve as a cautionary tale for the Stronachs about the danger of turning the Preakness into a smaller, tonier event in the Washington suburbs.
There already is a real question about how much excitement the Preakness — under any circumstances — will generate in the Washington area. Obviously, the hardcore horse racing fans in the Mid-Atlantic region will show up anywhere, but does anyone seriously believe the parochial affinity for the race and infield festival that generates annual six-figure crowds at Pimlico will somehow shift from Baltimore to Laurel?
For that matter, is there really a hunger in D.C. for another big wine and cheese party in an area where the high-end Washington event crowd rarely ventures?
If you’re a Baltimore conspiracy theorist — and aren’t we all — you might think that’s all part of The Stronach Group’s evil plan. The Preakness vacates Pimlico for “safety” reasons, lands in Laurel to a tepid response, which leaves little choice but to move the second jewel to the architectural Hope Diamond of the Stronach empire — Gulfstream Park in Florida.
To be fair, we all know Pimlico is a hot mess and has been for decades. The price tag to rebuild it on its current footprint seems much too high for either Stronach or the Maryland Stadium Authority to seriously contemplate. So, it would seem logical to move it to a nearby track that already has been significantly upgraded and has an ambitious master plan to redevelop the area around it.
There’s no question that Laurel Park will survive and thrive if it gets a piece of the pie when sports gambling gets approved in Maryland, which figures to happen sometime in the next couple of years.
The Preakness would obviously provide added value, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It will remain profitable as long as the Triple Crown series continues to generate strong media revenue, but that revenue depends on a declining industry that trades heavily on its history and tradition.
When the stewards at the Kentucky Derby ruled unanimously to disqualify Maximum Security for impeding several other horses, it was the painful but correct decision to choose the integrity of the world’s most popular horse race over the economic impact on the sport.
It has put a huge dent in the national attention that would normally be paid to the Preakness, which would still have featured quite a bit of intrigue if both Maximum Security and Country House were on their way here for a rematch. But the event stands on its own in Baltimore.
Local fans will still come — some for the race, others for the music and still others just for this troubled city’s biggest party of the year.
If it were taking place in Laurel under these unhappy conditions, it would be just another nice horse race.
The best course might actually be the two-track solution the Stronachs are so strongly against. They need to work in partnership with the stadium authority and city government to perform a more reasonable renovation of Pimlico and share in the year-round maintenance of it for the same short racing schedule currently in place.
Keep in mind that the state still has some leverage here, since it already commits some casino gambling revenues to prop up the racing industry in Maryland and ultimately will decide whether Laurel Park gets sports betting.
If the Stronachs are going to play hardball, this might be a good time to convince them that moving the Preakness to Laurel could turn out to be a swing and a miss.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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