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Out to Pasture

As Pimlico ages, could the Preakness Stakes move? And what does that mean for Baltimore?

The Sport of Kings was having a very pressing problem with its porcelain thrones. In the hours leading up to last year’s 140th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, a water-pressure issue forced track officials to close a number of bathrooms in the aging—many would say dying—facility after some toilets began backing up. That’s a serious problem at an event where tens of thousands of fans drink Black-Eyed Susan cocktails and Budweiser drafts as if a second Prohibition starts at sunset. “Every year it seems to be something,” says Sal Sinatra, president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the race. “We’re just worried that this year it could be electric—or anything. It’s just an old building.”

That’s an understatement. In an industry where Gary Stevens was considered a relic in 2013 when, at 50 years of age, he became the oldest jockey to ever win the Preakness, the 146-year-old Pimlico facility is downright ancient.

Old Hilltop, as it’s known, is clearly losing its looks and suffering occasional plumbing issues (who among us isn’t?), but, at this point, those aren’t even its biggest problems. The lack of skyboxes and other modern amenities makes the Preakness far less profitable than its Triple Crown siblings, which is a major reason why statements Sinatra made on the brink of last year’s race sent shock waves through the city, state, and sports world.

In response to the question, “Is it conceivable that the Preakness should someday be at Laurel?”—referring to the Jockey Club-run track 25 miles south of Pimlico—he replied, “Actually . . . yes . . . I think by the end of the year, I’ll know if it’s going to be Laurel or not.”

The news of Sinatra’s candor spread faster than American Pharoah ran later that day, when he thrilled a record crowd of 131,680 by winning the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown in a deluge.

Baltimore without the Preakness? That would be like Charm City without the Colts. Okay, bad example. But as the Stronach Group, which acquired the Jockey Club in 2011, spends millions on major surgery for Laurel Park while Pimlico gets Band-Aids, it’s fair to ask: Might the Preakness one day move? And if it does, what exactly will be lost?

Let’s clear up one thing about the Preakness’s future at Pimlico right out of the gate.

“It’s there for as long as I can see right now,” Sinatra says. “Nobody wants it to move. Maybe one year you’ll have to let Laurel [host] it because they’re renovating the entire grandstand, but other than that I would hope that Pimlico would last another 100-plus years.”

Since it opened in 1870, Pimlico has hosted some of the most famous races in history, including Seabiscuit’s 1938 victory over War Admiral. Over the years, attending the Preakness also has become a rite of passage for partying Marylanders.

“Back in the ’70s, you could do whatever you wanted. Literally,” says Mike Cray, an Ellicott City resident who has attended more than 35 Preakness races. “A friend of mine’s uncle had a funeral home, so we took a casket, lined it, and filled it with 60 cases of beer. We’d pick up a couch and a recliner and we’d make his and her porta-potty enclosures out of refrigerator boxes. We brought it all to the infield.”

The 146-year-old Pimlico facility is downright ancient.

A bit of the anarchic spirit wore off in 2009 when Pimlico banned fans from importing their own booze, but with concerts and plenty of drinking options in the InfieldFest, very few fans wake up Sunday without a hangover.

In the clubhouse, the crowd skews older and dressier, and cocktails tend to trump beer. Of the three Triple Crown tracks, Pimlico actually offers the best vantage points for spectators, says Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. The two-time Preakness winner now is an analyst for NBC Sports, which televises the race.

“Pimlico is the smallest of the three in terms of the grandstand,” he says. “The circumference of the track is the same size as Churchill Downs, but it gives you a much more intimate feel, like it’s closer to the racing surface itself.”

That’s where the favorable comparisons to the homes of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont end. Bailey recalls a fire in Pimlico’s jockey room caused by an overloaded circuit breaker in 1998, and says the place is in a “state of disrepair.”

“The barns need a lot of work, that’s for sure,” says Bill Boniface Sr., co-owner and trainer of 1983 Preakness champion Deputed Testamony, the last Maryland horse to win. Still, he’d like to see Pimlico survive. “If it were to move, you wouldn’t be comparing apples to apples. You compare the great horses over the years at the same distance, the same time of year; you’d lose that if you took it somewhere else.”

Peeling paint, sagging floors, a dearth of 21st-century technology, and a general down-on-its-luck feel permeate Pimlico. No one knows this more than Sinatra.

“We’re limited on resources in terms of kitchen facilities and things like that,” he says. “The bathroom situation is a nightmare. It was built so long ago that it’s majority men’s bathrooms. You’ve got stairs to some bathrooms so people who are disabled can’t get to them. I think fans are expecting more nowadays.”

Meanwhile, last September, Churchill Downs announced it would spend $18 million to modernize its Turf Club and several other premium areas. From 2001 to 2005, the Louisville facility underwent a $121 million facelift in which the clubhouse was upgraded and 77 luxury suites were added.

Suites are the golden goose on which the Stronach Group is pinning its hopes for the future.

“On most measurements, we’re 50 percent of the Kentucky Derby,” Sinatra says. “We’re 50 percent of sponsorships, we’re a little more than 50 percent in handle. The thing that’s different is the Derby nets $55 million that weekend. We net $8 million. The main reason is we don’t have the luxury boxes—the stuff that a newer facility can offer businesses and wealthier people to get those numbers up.”

It’s not a matter of just renovating the existing facility. Because it was built on dirt, the grandstand can’t be expanded vertically, Sinatra says. Razing then rebuilding it, many people think, is the only solution, and that could cost upward of $200 million, a figure that leads to another tricky question.

Who’s going to pay for that?

Del. Sandy Rosenberg was born and raised in the 41st District, which he now represents. Except for college and law school, he has lived within walking distance of Pimlico his entire life. Losing the Preakness would be catastrophic for the city’s psyche and its pocketbook, he believes.

“It’d be like losing the Colts, but you’re not going to get the Ravens a decade later,” he says. “It’s like having a convention every year. There are a fair number of people who have discretionary income. They stay in hotels, they go out to eat and drink. They don’t just go to the track on Saturday.”

Visitors to the 2015 Preakness spent an estimated $10.6 million statewide, according to a Maryland Department of Commerce report. Indirectly, total Preakness-related spending was $33.6 million, and spending and employment from Preakness race-day operations and visitor spending generated about $2.2 million in state and local taxes.

That alone would seem like a good reason to renovate the track, despite the costs.

Rosenberg calls a 50-50 public/private financing split for a new facility “reasonable,” but other lawmakers are not convinced. Del. Pat McDonough has floated the idea of a new track at Port Covington because, he says, people would be more attracted to an event near the waterfront than up in Park Heights.

“The people that own Pimlico are not really interested in pouring any money into the development of that current site, nor do I want the taxpayers to put any money into that site. It’s too far gone,” McDonough says. “It needs a rebirth somewhere else. It needs to be part of a larger project, which would be, for example, an entertainment district where the new racetrack would be adjacent to an upscale marina, a hotel facility, and there would be theaters and restaurants.

“All the legendary horses have come through here. Laurel does not have that feel.”

“We’ve got to forget about emotional and sentimental attachments, because Pimlico at its present site and in its condition has no future,” continues McDonough, who calls a 1987 state law that bars the Preakness from leaving its current site a “paper tiger.”

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, who entered the horse racing business in 2007 when he bought Sagamore Farm, is developing much of Port Covington. He believes the Preakness should always be in Baltimore, company spokesperson Diane Pelkey says, but the focus of Port Covington’s master plan is the Under Armour headquarters, and it does not include a track.

Governor Larry Hogan appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“The Preakness is an important cultural institution and economic driver for the state and Baltimore City,” says Hogan’s spokesperson, Hannah Marr. “Governor Hogan supports keeping this iconic horse race in the city, where it has been a Maryland tradition for more than 140 years.”

The Stronach Group last year spent $20 million at Laurel Park building two 150-stall barns, adding a new simulcast room, installing hardwood floors, new carpeting, new bars and food options, and replacing old tube TVs with 850 flat-screens. It has more land, a more modern facility, and, most importantly, will host 129 days of racing this year, as compared to 28 at Pimlico.

In the meantime, however, this year’s Preakness on May 21 will feature a new 30-by-50-foot high-definition television screen in the infield, redone flooring on the second floor of the clubhouse, and, yes, working bathrooms.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll come up with a master plan for Pimlico just as we’re trying to do for Laurel,” Sinatra says. “My guess is you’re probably going to be talking to me in the next three to five years seeing where we’re at. We’re trying to find a way that three to five can be 30 to 50. It’s the second-oldest track in the country. All the legendary horses have come through there. Laurel just does not have the same feel. Our sport is built on history, and history is Pimlico.”