They call Pimlico Race Course “Old Hilltop,” but sometimes it seems to exist at the edge of a mountainous cliff with a stiff wind at its back.
The 147-year-old Northwest Baltimore track, already reduced to a mere fraction of its former racing days and an even tinier fraction of its former impact on the American sporting culture, now faces the possible loss of the Preakness, which is its only modern reason for existence and, for more than a decade now, the only day of the year in which the track actually makes money.
A study released last week by the Maryland Stadium Authority states that Pimlico essentially needs to be ripped apart and rebuilt to remain a suitable home to the middle jewel of horse racing’s revered Triple Crown – at a cost of somewhere between $250 and $320 million.
Who would foot the bill? Who knows?
The Stronach Group, the Canadian horse racing conglomerate that owns the track, might swallow some of the cost, but not all of it. The state might chip in, if convinced that keeping Pimlico viable is essential to Maryland’s overall racing industry.
How much the city might pitch in is questionable, since the city’s broke, as usual, and facing a myriad of other expenses.
The Stronach Group has made no secret of its desire to move the Preakness to Laurel, which it also owns. The company has already moved most of Maryland’s racing days there, and they’ve invested millions in refurbishing Laurel’s seating and landscaping and barns.
Meanwhile, to walk around Pimlico on any afternoon that isn’t Preakness Day is to wonder how long it can continue in its current state. It’s not just the track that seems outdated, it’s the sport itself.
At mid-century, thoroughbred horse racing was one of America’s three biggest sports, along with baseball and boxing. But with the ascendance of football and basketball, and the sped-up pace of American life, and the lucrative television contracts signed by some big-time sports operations but not horse racing, the “Sport of Kings” has long since fallen on difficult times.
Last year’s Preakness generated a $94 million betting handle – but is that enough to warrant massive rebuilding if it’s a losing proposition the rest of the year?
Hanging in the balance is not only the future of a racetrack but on surrounding neighborhoods which would feel the reverberations if the place closed.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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