Sixty years ago this spring, when thoroughbred horse racing still called itself the “Sport of Kings” with a straight face, Preakness Day at Pimlico Race Course drew 35,000 spectators. They dressed up like movie stars and blew their money betting on the legendary favorite, Silky Sullivan, who flopped badly.
Twenty years ago, when racing still attempted to call itself the “Sport of Kings,” since royalty ain’t what it used to be, the Preakness drew roughly 100,000 spectators. I took my wife on a little stroll through the infield, where people no longer dressed up like movie stars.
They looked like the cast from “Holiday for Slobs,” many staggering about in an alcoholic stupor. Some held up signs, urging females to “Show Us Your [Bleeps]!” There seemed, at a rough count, more tattoos than teeth among them.
“What do you think?” I asked my wife.
“Does the word ‘inbreeding’ come to mind?” she asked.
You may note the differences not only in fashion but arithmetic over a 40-year period. Why did a “mere” 35,000 attend in the spring of 1958, when horse racing was one of America’s three biggest sports (baseball and boxing being the other two), and 100,000 attend when racing was well into its half-century fade from athletic and cultural relevance?
Marketing, that’s all.
Sixty years ago, Pimlico was drawing crowds across a lengthy racing season. There was no need to make Preakness Day so outlandishly “special.” But by 1998, the track was dependent on that one day to support the rest of its dwindling calendar, and so they’ve been promoting the hell out of it every spring — and hoping to keep the track alive in such a manner.
But it’s not working out so well, is it?
Pimlico’s only got a dozen racing dates this year. The place needs an estimated $300 million in physical improvements and faces ownership threats to move the Preakness to Laurel, thus closing historic Old Hilltop’s doors forever.
Never mind what this means to racing — it’s a threat to Northwest Baltimore, as witnessed by the standing-room-only crowd that gathered recently at the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital to talk about the impact on their surrounding neighborhoods if Pimlico were to close.
The track is a buffer. It separates stable residential neighborhoods to the track’s northwest — from Park Heights, along Northern Parkway, down to Falls Road — from the sad, blighted area below the track from Belvedere Avenue down to Park Circle.
Those residents were well represented in the hospital crowd the other night, too, and they were asking when City Hall was finally going to do something about the decayed housing, the crime and drugs that plague their area and frightens residents on both sides of the race track.
In fact, the most moving moment of the night came from a woman named Udell Dawson, who lives on Spaulding Avenue.
“Did they let the track run down because of the surrounding neighborhood?” she asked in a breaking voice. “Belvedere Avenue is a disgrace. Good people shouldn’t have to suffer for the bad ones. I’ve worked at Sinai Hospital for 29 years. I had a son who was a homicide. I have nowhere else to go. I can’t sell my home. We all got feelings, too. People are scared to go anywhere. When I came to this neighborhood, it was a nice neighborhood.”
And now it’s not, and the possibility of Pimlico closing threatens people on both sides of the track. This is not a news bulletin, is it? Every mayor for the past half-century has promised to rehabilitate Lower Park Heights. But the words have meant nothing.
At the hospital gathering, Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-41st) said Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has “assured me that major improvements are coming” outside the track. Martha Nathanson, a LifeBridge Health vice president, said nearby Sinai Hospital wants to invest in the track property and said Mayor Pugh is “committed” to the whole area. “I’ve never seen a time when the forces were coming together like this. It’s amazing,” she said.
It’s heartening to hear such language.
Soon, we’ll see if anything’s behind the words.