Advised to hold our breath, the industry let out a collective sigh of relief last Thursday as Maryland Bill SB987 officially passed into law. The bill, the "Racing and Community Act of 2020," which authorizes up to $375 million in bonds for redeveloping Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, had passed March 18—or "PC," pre-COVID-19—but had the potential for Gov. Larry Hogan's veto.
The bill's passage is great news for everybody in our business, not just Marylanders. It shows an appetite for making an investment in racing's future and ensures the sport will be showcased in a sparkling new facility in the coming years.
At Pimlico, for some, it is long overdue. The plant on Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore is lacking in many areas … decent plumbing for one. Other sporting venues are older—Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston to name a few—but they are iconic locales that have seen significant infrastructure enhancements through the decades.
Pimlico's steel, concrete, and glass grandstand was erected in 1954, and enclosed in glass on three sides in 1959. A year later, a four-story clubhouse, with its indoor paddock, jockeys quarters, and 350-seat dining room rose at Old Hilltop. The bill back then for the whole package was about $5 million.
Pimlico has had many Band-Aids applied over the last 60 years, but not the complete overhaul it desperately needed decades ago.
We have a soft spot for the old place. Horsemen love the track surface and the camaraderie around the stakes barn during Preakness week … which, under normal circumstances, would be now.
Despite the rust, dust, and duct tape, Pimlico is a living, breathing, racing museum. The clubhouse is crammed with relics from Pimlico's better days. The mutuel banks are loaded with automated teller machines held over from the early '90s. The overhead odds board on the first level of the grandstand should be a National Historic Landmark. We can still hear the echoes of the manual typewriters click-clacking in the sagging press box. One man's "reclamation project" is another man's "charm."
As for this year's Preakness … there still isn't a date. As we await word from the Maryland Jockey Club a key question remains. We are under the assumption there will be a Preakness, but there is every possibility it could be run at Laurel Park. If so, could have last year's running—won by Gary Barber's War of Will on a splendid day on Old Hilltop—been it's last under its current condition?
Let's hope not. Even though the wooden portion of the grandstand was cordoned off last year, the plant deserves a proper good-bye. It deserves closure. We're holding our breath.