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Preakness and Laurel Park: Far-Fetched or Feasible?

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To think: Not long ago, the worry in Maryland horse racing circles was about the Preakness Stakes leaving Maryland.

Fortunately for its horse lovers, legislation was passed in 2009 that guaranteed that the second leg of the fabled Triple Crown would be basically bound, by law, to stay in Maryland at its traditional home of 140 years, Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. That same legislation went so far as to bind the race not just to the state, but to the Northwest Baltimore track.

But that was then. This is now.

Just before the recent Preakness, Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) President Sal Sinatra touched on a subject that has come up more than twice in recent years: the potential for moving the Preakness from Pimlico to Laurel Park, in West Anne Arundel County; and moving the race to Sunday, perhaps next year, in an effort to extend the financial windfall from the events of Preakness week — which has what is generally considered a $40 million economic impact.

Those two topics were slated to be discussed at the MJC’s meetings, which were scheduled to take place the week after the Preakness. Sinatra, who has been interviewed by several media outlets, said that the possible move wouldn’t happen overnight.

The early buzz in racing and business circles, predictably, has been mixed. Purists swear that it’ll never happen, saying that the state legislature would never approve the move; still, observers on the other side of the fence are intrigued and welcome the discussion.

The Con

To say that moving the Preakness from Pimlico to Laurel Park would be controversial is an understatement, even if it would prove to be a sound financial move by (who did not return calls to The Business Monthly for this article) The Stronach Group, of Aurora, Ontario, owners the MJC.

Many generations of Baltimoreans have grown up going to “Old Hilltop” for the big event or at least beamed with the civic pride that comes when the eyes of the sporting world are focused on the city during the race and its related events.

Of course, the eyes of the world were also focused on Baltimore in late April, when the rioting that occurred in various economically disadvantaged parts of the city made it the center of international attention. Pimlico is located in the city’s Park Heights neighborhood, which also has a less-than-stellar reputation; that raises a question about just how much moving the Preakness, a world-famous community pillar, away from Pimlico would hurt a city that is in the midst of rebuilding part of its reputation.

Speaking of Park Heights, the buzz about its streets isn’t the only problem. Attracting and accommodating a crowd of 131,000 racing fans, bigwigs and revelers into what is mainly a residential area is reminiscent of when the Baltimore Orioles were still playing at Memorial Stadium, in the city’s Waverly section. Both venues were built in an era when the phrase “suburban sprawl” had yet to be uttered in vain, and ballparks, race tracks, etc., were built within cities.

Then there’s the issue with the track itself. It was built in 1870, and there’s no way to build sky suites, among other infrastructure issues; secondly, it lies in such a relatively tight space that thoughts of expansion to go along with needed improvements are fairly limited.

That’s even led to suggestions of building a new Pimlico Race Course on Russell Street, near Camden Yards and the new Horseshoe Casino.

The Pro

Another part of what the recent meeting at Laurel Park concerned was upgrades for the track, which was built in 1911. It can not only accommodate the addition of sky suites, it also may be the site of night racing and even non-racing uses that may attract a new crowd to the track and the sport.

Part of the reason the MJC is interested in investing in Laurel Park, as opposed to Pimlico, at present is that not only is the building and the infrastructure newer, there is more room for expansion.

Then there is the point of access. While a crowd of 131,000 people is going to cause issues with the traffic flow virtually anywhere, Laurel Park does lie between I-95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, with routes 198 and 1 providing the main connections to the track, in an area that has much greater access to the Washington suburbs.

For those who place regionalism over provincialism, a potential move would be yet another aspect of a lively discussion. Baltimore is proud of the track and its heritage, and its citizens wouldn’t like suddenly having to share the event with Washington, a much more transient area that, in fact, helped support the Baltimore Orioles for a few decades. But it also “stole” its Baltimore Bullets (who were initially called the Capital Bullets and are now the Washington Wizards) when Owner Abe Pollin built the Capital Centre in 1973; a move to the Corridor would almost assuredly be seen as allowing interlopers to share what’s been a very Baltimore event.

Think Corridor

The early response from the business community has been somewhat predictable, with the area around the Laurel track set to benefit greatly if what exists as an idea today eventually becomes reality.

“Obviously it would help Laurel with the prestige factor,” said Darius Irani, executive director at the Regional Economic Studies Institute, at Towson University. “It would attract bigger crowds during a surge, and add a boost before and after the Preakness, especially considering the other events, like Black-Eyed Susan Day.”

Irani also said that, if the race moved, the public would view Laurel Park as the state’s premier venue, especially after the renovations that the race would require, but largely will be part of the new plan. “The concern is trying to keep the same level of enthusiasm at Laurel as you would in Pimlico,” he said. “The coverage would be much more centered between both cities.”

While saying that the MJC would realize some enhanced revenues, Irani said he’s “not sure” if moving the race would be a good move. “If a new track was built in the city, the Preakness would have to stay in the city. But if Laurel gets it even temporarily, they won’t want to lose it, either.”

Walt Townshend, president of the Laurel-based Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber, thinks “it would be extremely difficult to move the Preakness out of Baltimore,” he said. “That said, the amount of attention garnered by the Preakness is stunning, with all of the celebrities and dignitaries that come.”

True, the exposure for the local area would be huge. Then there’s the easier access to accommodations. “There is greater availability of hotel rooms around the BWI Business District on the weekend than there is during the week,” he said, adding that rooms would also be in demand earlier in the week. “We’ve only just begun to tap the market of professional women and business owners who would take part in Black-Eyed Susan Day.”

While acknowledging that the matter that is most important is that the Preakness has to stay in Maryland, Townshend noted that the state legislature would have to approve its relocation, even within Maryland.

“And I think it’s highly unlikely,” he said.

Wait, See

While the discussion of moving the Preakness to the West County track that the late Baltimore sportscaster Charley Eckman delighted in calling “Lovely Lawrel” will be ongoing, until “a formal presentation is offered, it’s hard to say much,” said Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.

True enough. Until then, Ross Peddicord, the executive director of the state Department of Agriculture’s Maryland Horse Industry Board, “really like[s] the idea that Sal Sinatra wants to gain input from all sectors of the sport,” he said, “and this isn’t being done under cover.

“If they move the Preakness to Laurel, maybe that means it’s time to build a new race track in Baltimore City. Memorial Stadium was also a hallowed ground, but the [Orioles] moved to Camden Yards, and that’s certainly worked out well,” Peddicord said, mentioning the intermittent talk of building a new Pimlico at Camden Yards or even in nearby Port Covington, where Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who is heavily involved in horse racing, has been buying land.

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Sports (a division of the Maryland Stadium Authority), echoed Peddicord’s observations. “This is such a sensitive topic that it has to incorporate multiple levels of conversation,” he said. “The MJC, the state, the city and local jurisdictions are just trying to assess and evaluate the purpose of the Preakness, where resources will go and what makes the most sense going forward.

“If you don’t throw the idea out,” Hasseltine said, “you’ll never know what the possibilities are.”

Peddicord agreed. “If you hash it all out and talk about the truth,” he said, “hopefully that will lead to the answer.”