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Owner, state and city should restore shine to Pimlico

Barry Rascovar
Barry Rascovar

Less than a half-hour from Owings Mills and Reisterstown sits one of America's most fabled racetracks.

Yet, Pimlico Race Course is in need of an expensive face-lift. It hasn't had a major renovation in 30 years.

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Its interior is worn and dated. Its underbelly — mechanical, electrical and plumbing — is out of date.

Yet a study by the Maryland Stadium Authority found the facility in "generally sound condition." With an overhaul, Pimlico could flourish once again.

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The authority's report sets the stage for a detailed examination of how to re-engineer the track's rejuvenation.

The Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore had another banner year — great news for Baltimore County and the rest of the metropolitan region.

It wouldn't be cheap — perhaps $285 million. But a far less-expensive redo can be achieved while still turning Pimlico into a showplace.

For decades, Maryland racing was in steep decline. In recent years, thanks to revenue from this state's successful slots casinos, the local thoroughbred industry has rebounded.

Breeders are returning to Baltimore County to take advantage of the huge jump in purse money fueled by slots proceeds. Off-track gambling revenue is rising. And the state's one day in the national spotlight is breaking attendance records.

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To keep that momentum alive requires a major investment in the 147-year-old Northwest Baltimore track.

The centerpiece of Maryland horse racing is the Preakness, run at Pimlico since 1873 (108 consecutive years since 1909). Last May's second jewel of racing's Triple Crown drew 135,256 fans to Old Hilltop.

With a modernization, Preakness Week could become far more valuable.

Pimlico's owner, the Stronach Group, also runs the track at Laurel and would love to operate exclusively in the Washington suburbs.

While that might seem logical, it flies in the face of tradition and ties between the Preakness and Baltimore. Move the race to metro D.C. and it loses all its history and records. It would be a devastating blow to the city and the horse community.

A new Preakness site could never duplicate the warmth and friendliness that exist between Baltimoreans and the nation's racing community during Preakness Week. Ask any trainer of a Preakness entrant and you'll hear nothing but kudos. Pimlico, despite its physical limitations, is far and away their favorite stop on the Triple Crown circuit.

Move the Preakness to sterile Laurel and you lose all that history and warmth. Where would Stronach take racing's VIPs for fabulous, personable evening functions? The nearby Holiday Inn?

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A century-old bond would be broken. The Preakness mystique would disappear. Stronach would be devaluing one of its most precious commodities.

Besides, Stronach can't move the Preakness or shutter Pimlico without General Assembly approval. That's not going to happen.

Yet, Stronach has put Pimlico on a starvation diet of just nine racing days. That's an insult to Baltimore-area racing fans and state racing officials.

The Stadium Authority's study, though, offers an exciting option — if the city, state and Stronach agree on a three-way partnership.

Renovations probably would take a decade. (Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, still hasn't finished its modernizations begun in 2001.)

Phased-in improvements make the price tag workable. Stronach could provide annual contributions. So could the city and state, along with money from an existing track improvement fund underwritten by a 1 percent tax on slots revenue.

If more money is needed, there's always extra scratch-off lottery games that could be created — the same source that helped build the Ravens' football stadium.

The Preakness means much to Baltimore County's large horse community. It's time we got serious about making Pimlico a first-rate racing venue that can last another 147 years.

Barry Rascovar's blog is www.politicialmaryland.com. He can be contacted at brascovar@hotmail.com.



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