LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I’m going to miss Pimlico. I’m not just talking about this year – with no Triple Crown in play and no Kentucky Derby winner on the grounds, I’ll be spending the third Saturday in May in Kentucky for only the fourth time in the past 14 years.
No, I’m talking about when the Preakness inevitably moves 27 miles southwest to Laurel Park, most likely in 2021. I know city officials in Baltimore don’t want to lose the race. But they’ve been beaten. The clock has been run out. They let the 149-year-old track, the second-oldest in the U.S., fall too far, with the help of its owner, who incidentally, also owns the newer venue where it hopes to relocate the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
To keep the Preakness at Pimlico, the current facility would have to be demolished, according to a study completed in December, and be rebuilt at a cost of $424 million.
That would be hard enough to do with an owner who wanted to save the old track. But The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, has no desire to do that. It wants to move the race to Laurel, where the crowds would be smaller, but fans would pay more.
So Pimlico languishes. In April, the Maryland Jockey Club closed 6,670 seats in the grandstand for safety concerns.
This is what happens when leadership fails. And the failure isn’t just in the creaky old Pimlico façade. It’s in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods around the track (a problem not at all unique to Baltimore).
I’ve seen a lot in trips to Pimlico.
I was there when the plumbing went out in the middle of Preakness Day.
I once left the track after finishing my story and tried to get a cab. After an hour of trying, a kind dispatcher explained that they wouldn’t dispatch cabs to the track after dark. Drivers had been dragged out of their cabs and beaten up for their money.
A couple of years back, Rick Bozich and Tom Lane were leaving after the race when they heard a loud thud at the rear of their rental car. Someone had hit it with a rock. They kept going, having been warned that carjackers would use the tactic to try to get people to stop.
I once saw a man being mugged in downtown Baltimore on my way back to the hotel from dinner.
A year ago, the tent for the post-race news conference was complete chaos just three hours before the press conference was to happen.
One year, there was no provision for lights in the press tent entirely.
(Side note: When John Lewis thought the wait for LP Steamers – a fantastic seafood place in Baltimore – was too long, I agreed to find an alternate restaurant around the Inner Harbor. At that late hour on a weeknight, all we could find was a Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory. I’m still ashamed that we sat down for that meal! But that’s not on Pimlico.)
A year ago at Pimlico, the press box roof was leaking and the place smelled of mildew.
You get the picture. The place needs work, and probably more work than anyone is able or willing to do.
But here’s the thing. Despite all that, the Preakness is special. The older I get, the more I appreciate these historic old venues. They have a charm that you can’t match with new structures. Even Churchill Downs has lost some of its mystique in the wake of its many renovations.
What it lacks in facilities, the Preakness makes up for in charm.
The Alibi Breakfast, held the Thursday of Preakness week, is unique among the Triple Crown races, with a large spread put out for owners, trainers, jockeys, media, and each horse’s connections interviewed during the program.
All of the Preakness contenders are stabled in the same barn. Track officials go out of their way to make sure that the connections are well taken care of. They make it a special experience.
There’s the old-school indoor paddock.
The press box might not be much to look at, but media members can see the race live from their working area, something you can’t do any longer at the Kentucky Derby. (And the press box crab cakes are first-rate.)
In 2016 I stood between Bob Costas and Laffit Pincay and watched Exaggerator win the Preakness over Costas’ shoulder on a TV in the news conference tent.
Last year, a short time before the race, the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club gathered in the post-race press tent to practice “Maryland, My Maryland.” It was amazing.
In short, they do try. They just aren’t always given the financial support to do things the way they’d like.
So what’s going to happen? They’re going to move the Preakness to Laurel Park, and something will be lost. Yes, it’s the second jewel of the Triple Crown and will continue to be, but it will lose some of its energy, and some of its soul. To be fair, that might happen even with a rebuild at Pimlico.
When you have an event like the Preakness, if it’s important to a community, it will safeguard it, and take pains to preserve its structures and history. That didn’t happen with the Preakness. Baltimore had more pressing issues.
So Old Hilltop, pretty soon, will be put out to pasture. The Preakness will stay there at least through 2020, but it’s hard to imagine it staying much longer. Let’s just hope these next two runnings of the race take place without some kind of tragic mishap.
I really am going to miss the old place. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
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