A run down race track looking for new life | WYPR

A run down race track looking for new life

May 10, 2017

The empty grandstand at Pimlico
Credit Karen Hosler

There was no shortage of enthusiasm from the hardy band of mostly local folk of a certain age in the Pimlico clubhouse last Saturday. They spent Kentucky Derby day watching horse races from around the country on video display terminals and eagerly placing their bets.

But they also had to be wondering what will become of this decrepit old track that has been reduced to a 12-day live racing season that includes the Preakness, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.

It’s simply easier and more profitable for the Stronach company, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park to run most of their races at Laurel, a renovated track that boasts 150 live racing days a year. What’s more, the 146-year-old structure in Park Heights, known as “Old Hilltop,” is hopelessly out of date.

"To make a long story short, they need a lot of work," said Tai Thompson, a retired probation officer who was part of the Derby Day crowd.

That’s no news to the potential partners in a massive project to renovate or rebuild Pimlico being studied by the Maryland Stadium authority. Phase One of the study put the potential cost of renovating the track on its current site at roughly $300 million. A total rebuild would presumably cost more.

None of the three would-be partners—the state, the city, and the track owners—have signed on yet. Informal negotiations are forecast to begin after this month’s Preakness. But Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh says she’s excited about the prospects.

"This is a super bowl," she said. "Every city doesn’t get to do this. Every city doesn’t get a super bowl every year in its own city."

Governor Larry Hogan has been more circumspect. He’s said he wants the Preakness to remain in Baltimore, but set some limits--as he told WBAL after the Phase one study was released in February.

"We’re certainly not going to write a check for $300 million," he said.

The track owners have been equally careful at sharing their intent without yet naming a price. Sal Sinatra, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the tracks, said they are open either to striking a deal to rebuild Pimlico or to moving the Preakness to Laurel—though the latter would require state approval.

"It’s just we hold our breath every year because it’s an old building," he said. “We had the issue with water a couple years ago, and you know. Everything’s old."

That nightmare, when toilets stopped working hours before the 2015 Preakness, just added to the complaints Sinatra has gotten about the space taken up on the Pimlico infield by Preakness party tents. They block the view of the backstretch for weeks before and after the race.

The future success of Pimlico may depend on sky boxes to make big bucks while protecting the clubhouse view, and off-season events to attract a younger crowd. Maybe the name of the Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, means something here.