Pimlico, The Historical Home of the Preakness Stakes, is Dying

Updated: May 19, 2019

Pimlico Race Course first opened its doors on October 25th, 1870 as just second Thoroughbred racetrack to be built in the United States. Quickly, Pimlico became a place to celebrate fashion, fun, and horse racing. On opening day, a horse by the name of Preakness won the Dinner Party Stakes. Three years later the Preakness Stakes was born in honor of him. The importance of Pimlico Race Course to the sport of horse racing is huge. The Preakness Stakes is the second race in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing - the most coveted accomplishment in the sport. The race has, aside from a brief hiatus of flat racing at Pimlico from 1889 to 1904, always been held at Pimlico.

In 1887, the United States Congress was closed for a day to attend a race at Pimlico. The race they attended, called “The Great Race”, is commemorated at the track with a 30ft long, 10ft stone bas relief. In 1938, the Pimlico Special was held as a highly anticipated match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit; Seabiscuit won. The Pimlico Special is still run today.

Pimlico, a place once full of life and love for horse racing, is literally falling apart. It was announced on April 13, 2019, that Pimlico’s northern grandstand will be decommissioned, causing the course to lose nearly 7,000 seats. This was the oldest section of the grandstands and was no longer able to withstand the weight of attendees.

This was a blow to Preakness Stakes that will be occurring on May 18th. Everyone who had purchased a seat in this grandstand would have to be reassigned. The closure of the grandstand seemed to foreshadow what is coming next for the Preakness Stakes - a move out of Pimlico and into Laurel Park.

In their official statement, the owners of Pimlico and Laurel Park, the Stronach Group said, “Pimlico Race Course is 'antiquated and in need of substantial renovations or complete redevelopment.' This portion of the grandstand is over 130 years old and has been exposed to the elements during this entire period of time and, therefore, it’s not surprising that it is no longer suitable for use”.

Although disappointing, the closing of the grandstands was not very surprising. Pimlico has been falling apart for years. The question of whether or not Pimlico should remain the home of the Preakness Stakes has been debated over for a while.

In May of 2016, the Maryland Stadium Authority accepted a request from the Maryland Racing Commission to manage a two-phase study of Pimlico’s ability to remain open for the Preakness. The study concluded, “while the physical condition of the facilities at Pimlico presents significant challenges, there does not appear to be situational factors such as location, accessibility, the surrounding neighborhood, etc. that would negatively affect Pimlico Race Course’s ability to remain the long-term home of the Preakness Stakes”.

The following year, Phase 2 of the study was initiated. This study would estimate the economic and fiscal benefits of running the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, perform an on and off-site infrastructure overview, and develop a cost estimate for the minimum capital improvements needed to support the “Preakness Program”.

The study concluded that the following should be done:

1.) All existing facilities, including the track, should be demolished and rebuilt to improve the facilities and allow for more commercial use around the perimeter of the track.

2.) Construct a four story high multi-use Clubhouse.

3.) Construct a new plaza

4.) Make improvements to on and off-site infrastructure (gas, water, sanitary, storm, electric, etc.), pedestrian and vehicle tunnels, and pedestrian bridges.

All of the improvements needed to keep Pimlico Race Course an operational facility will cost an estimated $424 million. However, a poll funded by Pimlico owner The Stronach Group found that two-thirds of Maryland voters disagree with spending more than $400 million on renovating Pimlico.

Many racing fans find this hefty price tag to be too much for a course that only hosts live racing for eighteen days a year (May 9-27 in 2019). However, the Maryland Stadium Authority found that the Preakness Stakes alone generates $5 million in taxes and supports 620 full and part-time jobs.

The renovations would also allow for Pimlico Race Course to be used in a variety of commercial ways. These include the following:

1.) Using the infield for entertainment, athletic, and leisure events.

2.) Using the Clubhouse for a horse racing museum and cafe, off-track and sports betting, social and corporate events, E-sports, and non-traditional sports like drone racing.

3.) Use a new plaza, called the “Palio”, for concerts, festivals, and markets.

4.) Non-racing land can be used for things such as hotels and shops.

In an article for Maryland Matters, Baltimore’s Mayor Catherine D. Pugh spoke highly of these p