Final Preakness at Pimlico before rebuilding stirs nostalgia mixed with relief for needed fixes

May 14, 2024 8:26 PM
  • Stephen Whyno, Associated Press
May 14, 2024 8:26 PM
  • Stephen Whyno, Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) — Preakness days in recent years have featured water and plumbing miscues. A large section of the grandstand at Pimlico Race Course has been rendered unusable because it’s condemned, and much of the rest of the storied but decaying track is a relic to the sport of king’s heyday many yesteryears ago.

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The home of the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown had become something of an eyesore, far from the glitzy palace of Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

The 149th rendition of the Preakness on Saturday will be the last before a massive reconstruction project begins at Pimlico, and with that brings a mix of nostalgia over the vaunted venue but also hope for the future because fixing up the old place has been long overdue.

Tom Rooney, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and a longtime staple of the industry in Maryland, knows all too well the contrasting feelings as someone who attends the Preakness annually sitting in the clubhouse at Pimlico, which first opened in 1870 and hasn’t gotten significant upgrades since the mid-20th century.

“You want to feel nostalgic, but then you look up at the ceiling and you worry that it’s going to fall in on you,” Rooney said. “It’s kind of a bittersweet year, but I think the people are going to be very proud of the final result in a couple years.”

After more than a decade of uncertainty and questions about what would become of the Preakness and racing in the state, Gov. Wes Moore last week signed into law a bill for a $400 million rebuild. The complicated process involves Maryland taking over control of the track, building a training center and eventually closing Laurel Park to shift full-time racing to Pimlico in the northwest quadrant of Baltimore.

For those who tune in once a year when the sport’s spotlight shines on it for the Preakness, it means an abrupt shift, with the race being moved to Laurel Park down the interstate halfway to Washington in 2026 before a planned return to Pimlico in 2027, much like the Belmont Stakes’ two-year hiatus at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York while the Long Island track is completely revamped. The hope is to restore some of the Preakness glory that faded with Pimlico’s deteriorating conditions.

“It’s going to create a much better home for the Preakness,” said Greg Cross, chairman of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority that’s overseeing the project. “It’s a statement that we’re not going to lightly let 150 years of history just go away.”

Some of the biggest names in the sport don’t want to see everything go away, namely the stakes barn that houses the Preakness horses in close proximity a few minutes’ walk from the track, something that does not happen at other major races.

“That barn is so special, and there’s been so many amazing horses that have walked through that barn,” said trainer Kenny McPeek, who is bringing Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan to the Preakness, looking for his second victory in the race. “The grandstand, obviously, needs to be revamped, and that’s wonderful. I think we could take this sport into another era with some changes there and leave the Preakness barn alone.”

Alan Foreman, another member of the authority, understands those concerns and said, “Change is difficult, but the status quo for racing could not guarantee survival of the industry.”

Without casino revenue like other states and with myriad issues over who would pay for changes, just getting to this point months from demolition is a wire-to-wire win, especially given how many plans over the years fell through the cracks.

“There is nervous anticipation among the racing community because until the wrecking ball hits Pimlico, they see designs and they see the actual timeline but I think many are still skeptical about whether this gets done or not,” Foreman said. “Part of it’s been trying to convince people that this is different than previous iterations and that this is going to happen.”

D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained a Preakness-record 46 horses, won it six times and has two more running in it this weekend, is glad officials have worked to keep the race in Maryland, in Baltimore and at Pimlico.

“I can appreciate the fact they’re going to start over with it,” the 88-year-old Hall of Famer said.

Starting over, much like Belmont Park, means a much smaller grandstand and footprint and more outdoor space to adjust to modern horse racing, where sparser crowds on normal days are expected but with the chance to expand usable space for the Preakness and other special events. It could be the start of horse racing’s version of vintage ballparks replacing cookie-cutter, multisport stadiums, a revolution that began a short ride away at Camden Yards.

“The sport and entertainment environment has changed: You have to adapt to the current environment and plan for the future,” Foreman said. “I think that Maryland is going to be very much a lab experiment for the racing industry as to what the future could look like.”