Pimlico Is About the People - by Tom LaMarra

Hospitality and the overall experience at Pimlico Race Course the week of the Preakness Stakes are always topics of conversation, in a good way. It has become a tradition—and even the slightest change appears to get noticed.

During the May 19 Alibi Breakfast in the Pimlico clubhouse, trainer Bob Baffert, who loves coming for the Preakness, expressed his disappointment there was no fried chicken. He may have been only half joking, or not joking at all.

The track has a history of great fried chicken, and there’s something special about eating it at 9 o’clock in the morning and washing it down with the vodka, bourbon, and orange juice concoction called a Black-Eyed Susan.

The point is not to criticize—and here’s guessing the chicken is part of the buffet again next year—but to point out how much Preakness participants and fans look forward to the event. They have expectations, and most of the time they’re met despite the obstacles the aging Pimlico facility presents with each passing year.

“Pimlico and Baltimore take us in like old friends,” Baffert said. “It’s nice that they appreciate what we do, and we appreciate what they do.”

“This is the most fun event in American racing,” said trainer Dale Romans, who saddled Cherry Wine to a second-place finish in the Preakness. “We really like this one. It’s relaxing. It’s really nice coming here after being in that boiler-pot (of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs).”

Despite repeated issues with and criticism of Old Hilltop, there’s something about it that keeps people coming back. Power outages, malfunctioning elevators, and low water pressure in bathrooms can understandably chase patrons away, but that hasn’t been the case.

Even the outrage caused years ago when the BYOB policy for the infield was bagged in exchange for buying a mug with unlimited refills was quickly forgotten. At this year’s Preakness, steady rain had little effect on those who spent the day uncovered in the infield.

Admittedly, Pimlico isn’t much to look at. Then again, it depends on your perspective. There’s a familiarity about the old joint that grows on you even though you fully recognize a major overhaul is necessary.

What carries the place, and the Preakness, is the people. Hospitality has long been a hallmark of the Maryland Jockey Club and the large staff needed to host the event. Many of them live in the neighborhoods surrounding the track and other parts of the city of Baltimore.

Not only are they pleasant and accommodating, they seem to truly appreciate being there. And it shows.

Maryland racing is no longer at a crossroads. After a very difficult period, not only has it rebounded but it is poised to continue growing and regain its position as a signature industry in the state.

The MJC, via parent company The Stronach Group, is sinking millions of dollars into Laurel Park, which is and will remain the primary Thoroughbred track in Maryland. One can read more about that on page 18. But a new Maryland Stadium Authority study into the viability of Pimlico and its host status for the Preakness could open up even more opportunity. If the end result is a public-private partnership to rebuild Pimlico and maintain its ability to accommodate 100,000-plus crowds, Preakness day revenue could balloon.

A new facility would be nice—certainly the city would embrace it—but no matter what happens the MJC must keep its eye on what has proved to be the most important element of Preakness week, and any other racing day for that matter.

It’s all about the people and the experience they provide. Maryland has a big advantage in that regard compared with many other racing states and racing companies, and it must remain a big part of the equation no matter what happens with its facilities.

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