Brother, Can You Spare Pimlico? - By Evan Hammonds

Americans held off the British Navy at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. So taken by the skirmish was Francis Scott Key that he took pen to paper and came up with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Straddling the Mason-Dixon line, downtown Baltimore was the site of the first fatalities of the Civil War during the “Baltimore Riots” in April 1861.

A modern-day Baltimore is the scene of another conflict, this time a few miles north of the Inner Harbor at Pimlico Race Course. Pimlico’s parent company, The Stronach Group, wishes to move the second leg of the Triple Crown to a refurbished Laurel Park, which is closer to Washington, D.C., while city leaders, many Maryland horsemen, and historians fantasize about fixing up the old joint.

The aging facility hosted the May 18 Preakness Stakes (G1), which saw War of Will vindicate his effort in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) with an up-the-rail classic score. The horse’s story is remarkable.

The original Pimlico opened in 1870, and a horse named Preakness won the Dinner Party Stakes. They’ve been running the race there nearly every year since 1873. It only seems the main grandstand—not the portion cordoned off and covered with black tarp this past week—and clubhouse are that old.

The city has sued The Stronach Group to seize not only the name of the race but the property itself. TSG leaders and their lawyers seek to dismiss the suit. At present, Rome burns.

TSG CEO Tim Ritvo was surrounded by media types when he made his way to the creaky press box a few hours before the big event. He answered questions with rapid-fire retorts for some six minutes, and while addressing a few issues, failed to answer the big question of how long Pimlico will be a viable facility to host a major event on the third Saturday in May.

“It gets tougher every year to give the customers the experience that they deserve for an event like this,” he said. “A pipe broke about two days before the race (actually four), and we had one break two years ago. It’s old infrastructure. We are doing everything we can to keep it up, but when you don’t have anybody here all year and then fill the place up, you have all sorts of problems.”

While those in the infield danced to the daylong techno beat and others in the high-end chalet areas enjoyed the experience, those in the main portion of the plant dealt with lack of adequate plumbing and lengthy lines for restrooms. Despite that pressing issue—and many others—a good number of people romanticize about the history of Pimlico, wishing for the race, and the event, to remain there. Oddly enough, we fall into that camp.

Those in the clubhouse and out in the grandstand boxes did manage to enjoy themselves, many recalling that they grew up in the infield and have graduated to the main building. Their hope is that the kids of today will say the same in a generation. Their annual pilgrimage to Pimlico is a one-of-a-kind happening and they can live with the dust, rust, and peeling paint.

Released earlier this year, the Maryland Stadium Authority’s plan to revitalize Pimlico suggested a complete rebuild with a $420-million-plus price tag that includes not only the racing plant, but the surrounding neighborhood. That’s obviously beyond the scope of the city, state, and TSG.

Horsemen love the Pimlico surface, the camaraderie of the stakes barn, and the city’s hospitality. Is there a reason the location can’t be reinvented for a lot less?

There has to be a better way.

We lack engineering skills and are even less adept at understanding the local political fabric, but can’t civic leaders and TSG heads come together with a multi-year plan for Pimlico that could address its needs section by section? It could start with the some 6,000 seats that were roped off a few weeks ago. Couldn’t that prime area be razed with a new facility taking its place? The other portions of the main plant could be restructured in later phases.

Based on what we witnessed this past weekend and the perceived TSG outlook of moving to Laurel after 2020—if not sooner—we’re sure it’s a dream, but don’t we all dream of classic glory?

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