It’s been 35 years since the Colts were stolen from Baltimore in the dark of night. Now, a new interloper seeks to steal another franchise from Baltimore.
The Preakness Stakes, middle jewel of horse racing’s fabled Triple Crown, has run at Pimlico Race Course in northwest Baltimore since 1873. That’s 146 years of Preakness tradition, nestled between the Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Downs and Belmont Park on Long Island. A feuding Canadian family—father and daughter are suing each other—controls the Stronach Group, racetrack owners who have systematically starved Pimlico of basic infrastructure upkeep, never mind improvements, in 15 years of lame stewardship. The facilities at Pimlico are so dilapidated that 6,700 grandstand seats were deemed unsafe for the biggest day in horse-racing this Saturday. Meanwhile, both Country House, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Maximum Security, the disqualified first horse across the finish line, are skipping the Preakness.
Stronach has scrimped on Pimlico from the outset of its 2004 acquisition of Old Hilltop. There are now just 12 days of Pimlico racing. In the last five years, Stronach spent nearly 90 percent of the state’s Racetrack Facilities Program funds—$22.5 million—which the company is required by law to match. Of that $45 million, only $6 million went to Pimlico (Wi-Fi, air-conditioning). The rest—$39 million—benefitted Laurel Park and nearby Bowie stables. The Stronachs’ goal is to create a “super track.”
That goal apparently includes moving the Preakness to Laurel, making it the new home of this premier international event. Stronach is attempting an end run around state law mandating that the Preakness stay in Baltimore except in emergencies. Stronach created said emergency by forcing Pimlico into disrepair to the point of condemnation. It happened on the Stronach watch. Their excuse? Who knew that wind, rain, snow, ice and sun can cause structures to require, say, a coat of paint or repairs over a decade and a half.
The Preakness predates the most celebrated of Triple Crown races. Two years before the Kentucky Derby hosted its first run for the roses, Pimlico debuted the Preakness Stakes for 3-year-olds. It was named for the colt Preakness, winner of the first Dinner Party Stakes, long since discontinued. The Belmont, final leg of the Triple Crown, was the first to launch—1867.
Baltimore’s legislative delegation and its former mayor, Catherine Pugh, turned up the heat on the Stronach Group. But their efforts may be way too little, far too late.
“Allowing a wealthy family from another country to use Maryland tax money for a racetrack to anchor the development of their 300-acre property in Laurel would be a travesty,” Pugh wrote in a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate Majority President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch.
Beyond a travesty, if the Stronachs get away with destroying Pimlico through neglect, losing the Preakness would be still another Baltimore tragedy. It took 13 years before the city landed an NFL franchise to replace the Colts. There are no more Triple Crown gems to be had if Stronach “jewel” thieves succeed in stealing the Preakness.
The Maryland Stadium Authority, along with Baltimore lawmakers, recommend a multifaceted Pimlico renewal—a rebuilt racetrack (Oriole Park at Camden Yards for inspiration?), plus entertainment, shopping and residential add-ons—at an estimated cost of $400 million. Since 2010, Maryland’s horse-racing industry—breeders, harness racing as well as track owners—has received $415 million in state gambling proceeds. Investment in a Baltimore treasure is a bargain compared with the cost of disinvestment. Think of cultivating a tax base, non-existent in distressed neighborhoods. Think of slashing murder rates.
While Pugh stood up for Baltimore and its iconic racetrack, she’s now mayor emerit-less, having trashed her credibility. More tragically, Speaker Busch died just before the end of the 2019 legislative session, while Miller is undergoing cancer treatment. Notwithstanding those misfortunes, the city may gain some clout in the 2020 General Assembly through the unanimous election of Adrienne Jones of the 10th District, which borders Baltimore to its southwest. Dereck Davis, an early speakership frontrunner, is from Prince George’s, which would have given the suburban D.C. county a Maryland leadership trifecta. Both Miller and Hogan have political roots there. Laurel is in northeast Prince George’s.
Hogan spurned Baltimore in his first term. He nixed the Red Line light-rail project connecting job opportunities downtown and points east to West Baltimore, where 2015 riots followed the death of Freddie Gray. He also blocked renewal of the State Center hub in West Baltimore.
The governor could atone for snubbing Maryland’s urban core—its financial, cultural, medical and, yes, sports hub—by saving the Preakness for Baltimore with a visionary redevelopment of Pimlico.
(BTW: I’ve boycotted Mayflower ever since they moved the Colts.)
Steve Parks is a retired journalist now living in Easton.