Not So Fast - By Evan Hammonds

Racing has continued amid a pandemic, and for that we have a great many thanks. In Maryland, hopeful horsemen declared last week: “Hey, they’re running the Preakness Saturday…it’s like we’re alive in the double.”

The Maryland Jockey Club did present the Preakness Stakes (G1) in front of a very select, very socially distanced live audience at Pimlico Race Course, which held up remarkably well without 100,000-plus trying to use its facilities.

While the industry can make it through a summer/fall Triple Crown series once—hopefully once is enough for most things that have happened so far in 2020—the sport needs to see the series return to tradition.

“I can’t wait until we get back to the original schedule,” trainer Bob Baffert opined Preakness week. “It needs to be in May. We need to keep the same schedule. We’ve always thought, ‘If we spread it out, what would it be like?’ Well, people lose interest. People don’t even know the race is going on this week. But we’re fortunate to run it.”

The Thoroughbred industry hasn’t lost interest in Maryland racing, or more specifically in Pimlico. The rusty, musty facility—given up for dead more than once—has a new lease on life after the state legislature passed the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020 on March 18. The bill is for refurbishing Laurel Park and constructing a new facility for racing on Old Hilltop, with other projects to help raise the profile of the surrounding Park Heights

Many said it couldn’t be done, but at the right moment the stars aligned with the city of Baltimore, Anne Arundel County, the state of Maryland, The Stronach Group (which owns Pimlico and Laurel), and local horsemen.

The project is continuing to move forward despite COVID-19.

“It’s a rather substantial series of developments, and they are progressing, and the plans are in the very good hands, and very competent hands, of the Maryland Stadium Authority, which, is fair to say is the best business in developing sports venues, not only in Maryland but I’d suggest the country,” said Maryland Jockey Club attorney Alan Rifkin.

“It really took Belinda Stronach’s leadership to make transformational plans come to be,” he continued. “Part of what made it work was the Maryland Jockey Club agreed to essentially give the property in and around Pimlico to the city for the development of the out parcels that will really transform the Park Heights community. That took a lot of vision.

“It was a struggle. Nobody can tell you we had a crystal ball and thought we could achieve what we’ve been able to achieve. Many, many people made that happen. In so many respects this is a transformational moment in time for the Maryland industry and maybe in the industry around the country.”

Gary McGuigan, a senior vice president with the Maryland Stadium Authority, agreed.

“It’s a major endeavor on a very complex subject with a lot of stakeholders. We are having some very productive meetings. I would say it’s off to a great start,” McGuigan said. “The way the relationships were earlier, it’s incredible how far they have come.”

The bill authorizes the ability to offer $375 million in bonds; however, it requires numerous agreements to be signed off on.

“There are 10-15 agreements, and I’m still trying to figure out if there are more…it speaks to the complexity of this whole thing,” McGuigan said. “Those bonds cannot be issued until all of those agreements are in place.

“The transition and all of the agreements are a lot to think about. You only get one shot at this. This is a lot of state money being invested, and it’s going to last for 30-50 years, so let’s get it right.”

Cutting to the chase for most everybody is when the reclamation of beloved Pimlico will occur. As with all good things, they take time.

According to McGuigan, proposals from architects and engineering teams were received Preakness week and are expected to be “on board” by the end of the year.

“We have a selection committee that includes all of the partners: the city, Anne Arundel County, The Stronach Group, and the horsemen,” he said.

Our issue of interest is which project goes first: Laurel or Pimlico. There are arguments for both. Regardless, McGuigan notes the timetable is approximately two years from this December for the planning and design. Construction will start soon after that, likely in the first quarter of 2023.

For some, the wrecking ball can’t come soon enough for the aging plant. However, for those of us who still adore the present Pimlico, there are a few afternoons left to savor. Let’s hope the rest of them are in May.

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