Joe De Francis understands like few others the tough decision being weighed by the Maryland Jockey Club over the future of Pimlico Race Course.
“From a purely business point of view, it does not make a lot of sense to pour your resources into two racetracks,” De Francis said recently during a lunch break at the inaugural Pan American Conference in New York City. “Having said that, tradition is important.”
The MJC, which is owned by The Stronach Group, owns both Pimlico and Laurel Park, which is about 30 miles southwest of Baltimore, midway to Washington, D.C. The company recently completed $7 million in improvements at Laurel Park, including new barns for 300 horses, new wash stalls, new lavatories for men and women, a new surveillance system on the front and backside. Laurel also added 150 flat screen TVs.
Thoroughbreds have been racing at Pimlico since 1870. The racetrack has been through a dozen renovations since then, including a grandstand and clubhouse remodeling in the 1970s (which also included a tunnel between the grandstand and the infield), and another round of improvements in the late 1980s when Frank J. De Francis, Joe’s father, purchased Pimlico from the Cohen family.
More recently, a $100 million renovation plan had been alluded to for Pimlico in 2013. Capital improvement money has been generated by new video lottery casinos and is fueling a 10-year improvement plan for both Pimlico and Laurel. The Pimlico side of the equation keeps getting put on hold simply because the options there are limited.
“This building is old; you just can’t add suites to it,” Sal Sinatra said during a press conference on Pimlico’s future during the Preakness. Sinatra became vice president and general manager of the MJC in November 2014. “It’s almost a rebuild here, where Laurel is a pretty healthy building. Laurel you can renovate, so that plays into it as well. Obviously, we have more acreage over at Laurel than we do here.”
Pimlico sits on 125 acres while Laurel’s footprint occupies 363 acres.
The state of Maryland wants in keeping the Preakness at home. When Frank Stronach’s former publicly traded company Magna Entertainment declared bankruptcy in 2009, the state moved to exercise eminent domain over Pimlico and all rights associated with the Preakness and the race’s trophy, the Woodlawn Vase. The state also gave itself the authority to issue bonds if it needed financing for another buyer.
When the dust settled from the bankruptcy and ownership transferred to the privately held The Stronach Group, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed an agreement to waive the state’s first right of refusal to buy the Preakness Stakes as long as the race stayed in Maryland.
No one said anything about moving from Baltimore.
But clearly the second leg of the Triple Crown is an important part of Baltimore’s identity. Moving the race to Laurel would not be looked upon favorably and essentially would be viewed as losing the event to Washington, D.C., said several racing industry executives.
There is no clear choice. Now that a Triple Crown title has been secured by American Pharoah, all talk of tweaking the Triple Crown has been pushed off the shelf...not just to the back of the shelf.
“Don’t change one thing about the Triple Crown,” said one Central Kentucky horseman. “Not now, not ever. Once you do, it will never be the Triple Crown again.”
Thoroughbred racing has a rich history, but racing also faces competition from other sports. Former National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern noted recently that every NBA team is playing in an arena that is either new or has been remodeled with luxury suites, better video monitors, and improved concessions and amenities.
Churchill Downs has been the most aggressive racetrack on the renovation front, having spent $150 million on improvements since 2002. The Louisville track most recently spent another $4.2 million adding new owners suites for this year.
So what would De Francis do were it his decision? When pressed, he said he would err on the side of tradition and make the Preakness the centerpiece of a small meet. Even without a completely renovated grandstand and luxury suites, he believes Pimlico and the Preakness possess a strong enough draw to keep people coming.
Short term, De Francis is probably right. The Preakness will continue to draw a crowd. Long-term, however, as other professional sports continue enhancing their facilities and raising the expectations of fans, business will eventually trump tradition.