As the world of thoroughbred horse racing prepares for this weekend’s 142nd Preakness Stakes, the big question on many minds isn’t really who wins or loses but how much longer this historic race will be held at Pimlico Race Course.
The track exists pretty much exclusively for this weekend’s big gala. It’s an aging, rickety, mostly empty shell about 98 percent of the rest of the year, and a study earlier this year by the Maryland Stadium Authority said it needs about $300 million in renovations.
The Stronach Group, which owns the track, might pay part of that bill, but not all of it. There are reports that they’d much rather just shift the big race to Laurel Park, which they also own.
That would be a blow to the racing tradition, a blow to the state’s horse racing industry and a blow to Northwest Baltimore. Absent racing at Pimlico, what would happen to the big property just off troubled lower Park Heights Avenue?
For those who still follow racing, there’s another question that surfaces with every running of the Preakness: how did the sport fall into such a state of disrepair? In mid-20th century America, every poll declared that the three most popular sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Now football’s certainly the leader, with baseball and basketball drawing pretty well and basking in big TV money.
But boxing hasn’t been the same since Muhammad Ali’s heyday, and there are few souls left on earth who can still recall racing’s big time. As television coverage took over people’s lives, the other sports learned to embrace TV’s big paydays. Racing did not. The industry’s geniuses thought that televising races would keep people from coming out to the tracks. The result was that as every other major sport was getting airtime, racing slowly sank from public awareness.
While this was going on, the world was speeding up and Americans were losing their attention spans. Who has the patience for the long delays between races?
All of this is a shame, because the races themselves can still be thrilling, and the crowds that turn out for the Preakness each year are large and enthusiastic.
But then they go away, and they don’t return for another full year. Racing slips from everyone’s radar. It’s why we’re readying for this weekend’s big running and wondering not who wins or loses, but how much longer they’ll keep running the Preakness at historic Pimlico.
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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