There’s an uneasy sense that history’s about to repeat itself in Baltimore’s long-shot struggle to prevent the Preakness Stakes from galloping out of town and keep Pimlico Race Course alive.
This time, it’s horses slipping away. Last time, it was Colts. This time it’s Mayor Catherine Pugh trying to keep a venerable sporting institution from going to Laurel. Last time, it was William Donald Schaefer awakening to a radio broadcast telling him the Colts were on their way to Indianapolis.
Each move evokes a municipal shudder: Are we still a big-league sporting town, or has time passed us by?
Just for the record, this month is 35 years since the Baltimore Colts were stolen away while everybody was sleeping.
Last time, we had Robert Irsay, the Colts’ owner, trying to bully a broken city into building him a new ballpark – one with luxury suites – and then skulking out of town when he didn’t get his way.
This time, the Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico, are looking at a $400 million price tag that’s been put on improvements needed to make Old Hilltop acceptable – or they’ll take their Preakness to Laurel.
Last year, Pimlico had about a dozen racing dates. All year. The only day the track makes money is Preakness Day. Would it make sense to pour that kind of money into any facility just for a dozen thoroughbred racing dates a year?
Of course not. The question is whether somebody, in the entire state of Maryland, has an imagination. This is a fabulous piece of property, available for all kinds of entertainment options, plus housing and restaurants and shops.
And let’s not forget, in an era when individual states are bringing in legalized sports betting, that Pimlico would be a terrific location for a Maryland venue.
In the meantime, the current negotiations about moving the Preakness to Laurel, thus essentially ending about 150 years of thoroughbred racing history here, brings back vagrant memory of that awful snatching of the Colts — as well as every instinctive sense of municipal inferiority in the Bawlamer psyche.
It feels like it’s happening all over again – that the world’s about to pass us by again, that tradition counts for nothing, that money conquers all, and that Baltimore will once again be found wanting.
Robert Irsay helped usher in an era of pro sports franchises telling big cities to build them better ballparks, or else. The Stronach muscling is just the latest variation on a theme.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.