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 proposals. Pugh stated that, “MSA’s proposal for Pimlico will help transform Park Heights, create thousands of jobs for residents, and will result in more than $800 million in public and private investments”.
While the horse racing community has mixed feelings about Pimlico, the City of Baltimore is adamant on the Preakness remaining in Baltimore. Former Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young seeks state funding for Pimlico and the surrounding neighborhood. The hope is that by improving Pimlico and keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, the surrounding area will begin to improve.
In March of 2019, the city of Baltimore filed a lawsuit against the Stronach Group to try to prevent them from moving the Preakness Stakes to their other Maryland track, Laurel Park. The City of Baltimore states that a law passed in 1987 that prevents the Stronach Group from moving the Preakness unless there is an emergency.
Some racing fans theorize that the Stronach Group has intentionally allowed Pimlico Race Course to fall into a disaster so that the race can be moved. Whether or not this is true, there is glaring evidence of a lack of attention to Pimlico’s needs. $45 million was allocated for the development of both Pimlico and Laurel Park. $22.5 million of this is from Maryland’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal Program. The Stronach Group spent $39 million at Laurel and $6 million at Pimlico.
The Stronach Group have defended themselves by stating that Laurel is much cheaper to improve than Pimlico is. Bill Hecht, CEO of the Real Estate division of the Stronach Group, told the Associated Press, “Both of the facilities need pretty substantial upgrades in order to be competitive in sports entertainment”. “We just don’t see there being any state, city or private interest in fully upgrading two,” said Hect. “It’s clear to us that the cost of the upgrades is not comparable. It’s approximately $80-100 million at Laurel”.
In addition to the work already being done at Laurel, the Stronach Group is working to rebuild Bowie Training Center in Bowie, Maryland. The Bowie Training Center, originally a racetrack, closed in April of 2015. On March 19, 2019, a plan was presented to local officials to rebuild the track to use as a training center. It will cost $40 million, but is apart of the Stronach Group’s plan to bring more racing to Laurel Park (which is just 15 miles from Bowie) and to improve Maryland racing in general. To Pimlico's advocates, this was a clear sign of the Stronach Group pushing to move the Preakness Stakes to Pimlico. However, the Stronach Group states that if the Preakness remains at Pimlico, the Bowie Training Center will be crucial because the rebuild of Pimlico does not include many barns. Bowie will hold Pimlico’s horses.
The possibilities of Pimlico closing and the Preakness moving has stirred up mixed feelings in the community. Some agree with the removal of the Preakness, stating that the neighborhood is too dangerous and that the track is too worn down for repair.
Paul E. Strike is one of those racing fans who are not very fond of Pimlico Race Course. “My general feeling is that the track is really beat up and aside from that one weekend a year could not imagine visiting,” said Strike. “The folks running it do the best they can but honestly it just feels unsafe”.
Shannon Knight went to Pimlico for the first time 20 years ago. She felt very similar. "I’ve been there for a few non Preakness days in the past," she said. "It has been run down and really an awful facility since the first time I went there".
Others, like Maribeth Kalinch, want Pimlico and the Preakness to remain. Kalinch grew up in Baltimore and runs the Facebook Page “Friends of Pimlico”. She is adamant that Pimlico shutting down is bad for her hometown.
“If Pimlico shuts down, first and foremost, people lose jobs. It's a year round training center. Horses and people work there every day,” she said. “And, people live on the backstretch. Many of the trainers, owners, workers can't make the transition to Laurel.”
“The community will be devastated if Pimlico closes,” Kalinch said.
While Kalinch cares about the community around Pimlico, some people believe that it is not the Stronach Group or Pimlico’s responsibility to save the surrounding area.
To combat this, many Pimlico supporters say that the track should be preserved for simply for history’s sake. Kalinch believes that losing Pimlico is losing horse racing history. “Laurel has its own rich history to be celebrated, but you cannot move Pimlico's,” she said. “You can archive, preserve, or put it in a museum, but it's not living history. When people go to Pimlico they are living in history”.
Kalinch notes that the modern racing fan loves history. She believes that Pimlico should open up a racing museum that has a wing focusing on writers, photographers, film makers, and more. “We should share the history through media.