Pimlico staring at extinction

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They’ll run the 144th Preakness Stakes this Saturday at Pimlico, the north Baltimore track that has been the home to thoroughbred racing’s second jewel of the Triple Crown for the majority of the years they’ve been running the race.

But with decades of neglect, owners who want to pull the plug on the place and a battle with Maryland politicians who do not want to see the city lose a major sporting event, Pimlico’s future remains very much in doubt.

The Stronach Group, the same folks who have blood on their collective hands from 23 horses having died at Santa Anita this year, are positioning to send Pimlico to the same fate as Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, Garden State Park and any number of other tracks. They cite the dilapidated conditions of the facility as the primary reason to put the old lady to rest.

They tried to sway the court of public opinion with a full page ad in the Baltimore Sun back in March, saying they’re committed to Maryland racing. What they didn’t say is they are responsible for Pimlico’s continuing neglect.

According to the Sun, Stronach received $112 million in state funding and nearly 90 percent of that money went into fixing up Laurel, which is also owned by TSG and is located halfway between Baltimore and Washington D.C.

The Stronach Group has a plan to keep the Preakness in Maryland. But they want to host it at Laurel, not Pimlico. As you can imagine, that’s not sitting well with Baltimore officials. Remember, this city once lost its NFL team, the Colts, only to get another one in the former Cleveland Browns.

So you can perhaps understand why Baltimoreans get a little skittish when the conversation of what to do with Pimlico comes up. And in March, the city filed suit against Stronach looking to take over both the track and the race.

It would be great if some wealthy person decided to step in and save the track, or rebuild it somewhere else in Baltimore. Estimates are it would cost $424 million to rebuild Pimlico.

Four years ago, Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank looked into the possibility of acquiring Pimlico. Instead, he bought a horse farm that was in dire neglect and saved it.

Perhaps one of the casino companies that does business in Maryland might take up the cause to save the track or build something new near their Baltimore-area properties. But so far, MGM and Caesars aren’t looking to do so.

I was last at Pimlico in 1993, watching Sea Hero come up short in his Triple Crown quest, finishing fifth in the Preakness. I remember a leaky roof, standing water on the floor of the grandstand, rusty pipes throughout, the power flickering on and off.

Not exactly the kind of memories one wants to take from what is supposed to be a “bucket list” sports experience.

As I got in my car to drive back to my hotel along with 97,000-plus others who were headed home or wherever, I thought to myself, “How could they let this place become such a dump?”

Twenty-six years later, nothing’s changed. In fact, it’s worse. The north grandstand was condemned last month and cannot be used. That means about 7,000 folks have to find somewhere else to sit this weekend. Good luck with that.

It wouldn’t shock me if the rest of the joint got the same treatment. Then Stronach will win. They’ll knock Pimlico down, sell the land or put up some sort of commercial development, the Preakness will move to Laurel and that’ll be that.

When you consider Pimlico was given just 12 racing dates this year compared to Laurel’s 168, it shows that just about everyone has given up on racing at the place they lovingly call “Old Hilltop.”

My wish would be for Stronach to sell Pimlico to someone who had the financial wherewithal to rebuild it the right way, not just make a few perfunctory fixes. If it means moving the Preakness for a year while the new Pimlico gets rebuilt, I think we could all live with that.

But I’m not seeing anyone with that kind of money or willingness to save Pimlico. And it’s easy for me to sit here in Las Vegas and tell the Stronachs what to do with their money. But I do see it from their side of things. They took a shot when they spent $112 million back in 2002 to acquire Pimlico and Laurel with the hope the state would approve slot machines at the two tracks.

That didn’t happen. And while it’s sad they opted not to put the proper funding into Pimlico to save it and maintain quality racing there long-term, tough business decisions are made every day.

And if anything epitomizes what’s going on at Pimlico, you need only look at the projected Preakness field. Yeah, they’ll be running for pretty good money — $1.5 million. But with Maximum Security taking a pass on the race, Country House, the Kentucky Derby “winner,” getting some time off, this year’s race has “Meh” written all over it.

Sort of like the track they’ll be running it at this Saturday.

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About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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