By Barry Rascovar
Thanks to revenue from Maryland’s successful slots casinos, the state’s thoroughbred racing industry has seen a re-birth that hints at prosperity for the Free State’s billion-dollar horse industry in future decades.
Breeders are returning to Maryland to take advantage of the huge jump in purse money fueled by slots proceeds. Off-track gambling revenue is rising. And the state’s most important day of sports entertainment, the Preakness, is breaking attendance and wagering records nearly every year.
To keep those good times a-rollin’, though, will require a major investment by Annapolis political leaders and by their counterparts in Baltimore City.
It won’t be easy but it is achievable.
The centerpiece of Maryland horse racing is the Preakness, run at historic Pimlico Race Course since 1873 (108 consecutive years since 1909). Last May’s second jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown drew 135,256 fans to Old Hilltop – a record turnout for any sports event in Maryland.
But Pimlico is badly in need of a facelift.
Stronach’s one-track plan
The Stronach Group that owns Maryland’s two major race tracks at Pimlico and Laurel, would love to shutter the Baltimore facility and run exclusively in the Washington suburbs to multiply its profits. Laurel is where Stronach is putting all its improvement money.
That would be a wise business decision if not for the history, tradition and psychic ties between the Preakness and Baltimore. Move the race to a more southern location and the race loses all its history and records. Close Charm City’s racetrack and the community, already in bad straits, suffers mightily.
A new Preakness site can never duplicate the warmth and friendliness that exists 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.
Preakness guests are received like old friends and acquaintances and get VIP treatment in a relaxing, comforting environment.
If the Preakness moved to Laurel, where would Stronach take racing’s VIPs that week for fabulous, down-home evening functions? Beautiful downtown Laurel? The nearby Holiday Inn?
Move the Preakness and a century-old bond would be broken. The gloss and mystique of the Preakness would disappear. Stronach would be devaluing one of its most valuable commodities.
Beside, Stronach can’t move the Preakness or shutter Pimlico without approval of the state racing commission and the Maryland General Assembly. Neither is in a mood to oblige. Not now and in all likelihood not ever.
But Stronach certainly is trying to present a case for such a move.
This year it has put Pimlico on a starvation diet of just nine days of racing. That’s an insult to Baltimore area racing fans and to Baltimore officials. Mayor Catherine Pugh should take note.
There is a glimmer of hope, though.
Thanks in large measure to Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the Maryland Stadium Authority has come forth with a plan for modernizing and saving Pimlico.
It’s a “situational analysis” that paints an exciting future for a rejuvenated race track – if Pimlico’s owners are willing to take a realistic look at the state’s political landscape and accept a two-track solution.
This is a much-needed first step. It outlines a $285 million renovation program that is eminently achievable. There are amply ways to pay for this, thanks to the fact that it will have to be done on a multi-year basis.
By way of comparison, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, underwent a $121 million renovation starting in 2001; it took nearly four years to complete. More renovations took place at Churchill in 2015 and 2016 (ultra-luxury suites, a fully renovated clubhouse and plans for a $37 million suite tower).
There’s no reason Pimlico’s re-make can’t be done in a similar phased-in way that divides the re-make into chunks with workable price tags.
Stronach will have to chip in big-time if it wants Maryland and Baltimore to contribute handsomely, too. A public-private partnership only succeeds if all sides are fully committed financially.
Millions toward a Pimlico renovation could come from the 1 percent of slots revenue that already flows into a race track improvement fund. The $2 million in tax revenue generated each year by the Preakness also could be dedicated toward paying the interest on bonds for the renovations.
And remember how the Ravens’ football stadium was built: With special instant scratch-off lotteries. A similar money-raiser through the lottery agency could be devised for Pimlico’s facelift.
With bond interest rates near historic lows, this is an ideal time to start getting serious about what a beautified Pimlico will look like, the timing of improvements and the financing arrangements.
Moving the Preakness is out of the question. From a sports perspective, such a move would be a PR and financial disaster. It would be devastating to Baltimore and a black eye if the state of Maryland allowed such a travesty to take place.
Thoroughbred racing once was the Sport of Kings with huge crowds flocking to the tracks daily. The sport has been in decline in recent decades but there are signs of a rebound.
That rebound is clearly evident in Maryland. Additionally, cutting-edge technology advances such as virtual reality, augmented reality and electronic sports gaming hold immense potential to boost racing’s popularity and profitability.
For all those reasons, it’s time to get serious about making Pimlico a first-rate race course with all the creature comforts fan expect. It would be a big win for the surrounding communities, the city and the state.
Pimlico is an economic resource that holds considerable potential, but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.