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Moving Preakness Risks ‘Catastrophe,’ Former Racing Exec Says

A $4.4 million reimbursement request by the Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has been put off for at least a month, an official with the Maryland Racing Commission said on Tuesday.

The commission was originally scheduled to vote this week on a request for funds from the Racing Facility Renewal Account following the company’s expenditure of funds to improve the Laurel track.

RFRA monies are set aside from the state’s casino revenues, to help stabilize Maryland’s horse racing industry.

“There were discussions of a reimbursement, but the Maryland Racing Commission has decided to hold off until further discussions of an updated Capital Improvement Plan [for Laurel Park] can take place,” said Michael L. Harrison, policy director for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation, of which the racing commission is a part.

“Regulations require a current Capital Improvement Plan,” he added. “The last one had lapsed and we’re asking for a new plan.”

The request for RFRA funds comes as Stronach continues controversial efforts to “consolidate” its operation at Laurel.

Though company officials have said little publicly, they have indicated in private conversations with state leaders that running two tracks located just 22 miles apart, at a time of declining interest in the sport, is unworkable.

Their efforts to spruce up Laurel, in Anne Arundel County, are part of a larger, long-term bid to create a “super-track” there. They also envision moving the storied Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, from Pimlico, in Northwest Baltimore, to Laurel.

Baltimore City officials are scrambling to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, and are also promoting a multimillion-dollar proposal that would refurbish the track and bring multi-use development to the surrounding neighborhood. Speculation about the company’s plans have sparked regional tensions between Baltimore lawmakers and those whose districts are closer to Laurel Park.

In a lengthy interview with Maryland Matters, Joseph De Francis, who ran the Maryland Jockey Club for 20 years – which operates Pimlico and Laurel Park – warned that it would be a grave error for Stronach to move the Preakness.

While making clear that he understands the challenges that Stronach executives face — and sympathizes with them — the longtime horseman said the Preakness anywhere but Pimlico just isn’t the same event.

“In my view, they would be making a catastrophic mistake to try and do so,” he said.

For starters, De Francis said, you can’t have one site serve two radically different functions. Laurel, the state’s “bread and butter” track, as he called it, draws a couple thousand people during weekday races and 5,000 or so on weekends.

Pimlico’s Black Eyed Susan Day, by contrast, draws more than 50,000 people. And the Preakness, which is broadcast live on NBC, attracts crowds that surge well above 100,000.

“You can’t have one super track that’s going to really be optimal for both end uses because they’re so radically different,” De Francis said.

Secondly, he said, attempting to pick up and move the Preakness carries risks of tampering with the public’s sense of history and their expectations.

“The only reason the Triple Crown is the Triple Crown is because of tradition. And the only reason the Preakness is the middle jewel of the Triple Crown is because of tradition,” De Francis said.

“Once you start monkeying with that tradition, and saying, ‘We’re going to move it someplace else, even though it’s [only] going to be 25 miles down the road, it’s not the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore anymore. You start down a slippery slope that can have a very, very bad ending.”

Lastly, he predicts “a much smaller crowd” to attend the Preakness if it moves to Laurel. Not only is the Anne Arundel track a much smaller venue, there is no ability to have crowds amass on the infield, as they currently do in Baltimore (and in Louisville, home to the Kentucky Derby).

“You’ll lose that infield crowd at Laurel because you have a massive stormwater retention pond that basically is a huge lake,” he said. “And because the overwhelming majority of the Laurel site is in the 100-year floodplain, you can’t move that stormwater retention pond someplace else. It’s stuck there.”

Even if there was a place for fans to dress up and party down on race day, De Francis thinks Baltimore-area fans would be too resentful of the move to follow the event at the new locale.

“I think you’d lose an awful lot of Baltimore fans that are going to view the event as ‘moving to D.C.,’” he said.

“A lot of Baltimore sports fans that currently patronize the event at Pimlico, I believe, would purposely boycott it were they to move it to Laurel, which would be perceived, in the Baltimore community, as moving it to D.C.”

Harrison, acting communications director for the Maryland Racing Commission, said it’s possible the Stronach Group’s request for reimbursement will be brought up at the commission’s July meeting.

The firm did not respond to a request for comment. 

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Moving Preakness Risks ‘Catastrophe,’ Former Racing Exec Says