As the Maryland Jockey Club prepares for the May 16 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, there's a lot going on behind the scenes--and much of it involves the status of the historic track in suburban Baltimore.
Officials with the MJC and its owner, The Stronach Group, said they expect a decision after the Pimlico spring meet ends in early June on a master plan for Maryland Thoroughbred racing, and a major question is whether the company will maintain Pimlico and Laurel Park, or consolidate all racing at one facility.
"We're looking at everything," said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for The Stronach Group who has spent time in Maryland in recent months even though he oversees Gulfstream Park in Florida for the company. "It's hard to say what's on the table and off the table. Where does year-round racing take place in Maryland? After the Preakness our focus is going to be on a solid plan."
Ritvo also recently told Blood-Horse the company's financial models for Maryland indicate "they work out with only one facility." If it comes down to that, the decision won't be an easy one to make.
Pimlico in recent years has offered about 30 days of racing, but it is home to a Triple Crown event that generates the most revenue for the MJC. Ritvo said the company is looking at everything from the historical significance of Pimlico to what the Preakness infield party means to the bottom line.
As for Laurel, it is a large facility as well, but like Pimlico needs a lot of infrastructure work. It races more than 100 programs a year and has one of the finest and widest turf courses in the country.
"We feel comfortable that under the right model, Laurel could house enough premium seats to do the Preakness," Ritvo said. "With Pimlico, it's a matter of how to make it comfortable and nice for the other 10 months a year. We'll be involving the Maryland Racing Commission, horsemen, the state; we want to find a win-win everybody can be comfortable with.
"We're not going into this alone. And even if we knew a stone-cold direction, these things tend to take lost of side turns."
Ritvo and MJC general manager Sal Sinatra, who took that position in December of 2014, also said changes are coming regarding the year-round schedule. Sinatra noted that only 140 races were run on the grass in Maryland last year, and that turf races generally attract large fields and higher pari-mutuel handle.
So, the plan is for Maryland to offer racing through June and July beginning in 2016. Laurel this year will bring back August racing for the first time in years to capitalize on the grass course.
Efforts to fashion a multi-state circuit in the Mid-Atlantic region in the spring and summer thus far have failed. The absence of live racing in Virginia last year and perhaps this year isn't good for Virginia, but it does help the other tracks in the region fill fields.
"We'd rather look at coming up with a cooperative schedule, but we also have to do what's best for us," Ritvo said. "We've been willing to work with Delaware and Virginia. Our goal in this area is for horsemen to come to Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region. They can make Maryland their headquarters and have the opportunity (to ship and) race at other tracks in the region. Maryland has to be a leader in this case, because it is one of the few states that actually wants to continue to run horse races."
And where those races will take place in the future remains to be seen. Though it's doubtful Pimlico or Laurel are going away any time soon with so much at stake.