Many folks feel the likelihood of the Preakness Stakes running off to Laurel Park is as sure a thing as Smarty Jones in his stretch gallop in the 2004 edition of the legendary race. For a quick refresher, Smarty Jones took the lead at the top of the stretch in that Preakness and when he crossed the finish line, there were nearly a dozen lengths between him and the closest colt.
Barring political and financial miracles, the chances of some version of Pimlico Race Course enduring on Baltimore’s Northern Parkway — and consequently, the Preakness staying in the city rather than moving 28 miles south to Laurel, Md. — seem to be as remote as second-place finisher Rock Hard Ten’s chances of catching Smarty Jones in the stretch.
And if it does happen that the Preakness winds up at Laurel Park, what might that look like?
“I put the over-under on attendance at 30,000,” said Joe DeFrancis, who was part of the family that once owned the Maryland Jockey Club, which is the corporate umbrella that covers Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the Preakness Stakes.
Currently, the Maryland Jockey Club is owned by a Canadian company, The Stronach Group, which also owns Santa Anita Park in California and Gulfstream Park in Florida.
DeFrancis’ prediction on Preakness attendance at Laurel is startling.
Last year’s announced attendance for the Preakness was 134,487. The previous year, the race crowd was an announced record of more than 140,000. The 2016 number was better than 135,000.
To be sure, a smaller Preakness attendance at Laurel is guaranteed, in part because it’s impossible to have the infield throng that has been a trademark of the Preakness and a boost to attendance figures. The center of Laurel’s racing oval is taken up with a picturesque pond that isn’t there merely for aesthetics. It’s primarily for stormwater management.
Even if the pond could be relocated, the current Maryland Jockey Club management has often said that the infield experience, as currently constituted, is not what it envisions for a 21st century Preakness. This management’s goal is to cultivate the Preakness as a higher-end sports event that attracts more wagering money.
“The people that show up in the Preakness infield are there for a party,” said Alan Foreman, the longtime counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Those people aren’t going to be betting on the races. After all, you really can’t even see the races from that part of the infield.”
If the Preakness moves to Laurel, Foreman said, “it’s going to be in a … state-of-the art facility. There still will be a race called the Preakness, it’ll still be the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby winner is still going to show up, and it’s going to be a world-class sports event.”
And while there will be some consternation because of the move from Baltimore, “over time, things will settle in as people get used to the change,” Foreman said.
Foreman referred to the Orioles moving from Memorial Stadium, the New York Yankees shuffling off to a new version of Yankee Stadium and the Dallas Cowboys relocating from their iconic hole-in-roof home to a new stadium as examples of how things change in sports and fans adapt.
Meanwhile, DeFrancis believes the bitterness of a move will be profound for Baltimore.
“The folks making the decisions in Toronto don’t understand the sports rivalry between Baltimore and Washington,” DeFrancis said of The Stronach Group corporate leadership. “A lot of people will see this as a move to Washington and they won’t go to the race. And I don’t think they’ll sell one more ticket to anyone from D.C.”
If the race goes to Laurel, almost certainly there will be an emphasis on high-end spectator spaces. At Churchill Downs, the iconic twin spires still stand tall and the track still accommodates an infield crowd that takes attendance into the 150,000 range, but new luxury spectator spaces cater to high-end patrons.
Clearly, that will be in the Preakness’ future with a move to Laurel. The most obvious high-end spectator space at Pimlico is the corporate village that’s on the finish line side of the infield, but when the weather turns bad — as it did in 2018 — even that space can be less than comfortable. Luxury suites at Laurel that are far plusher and provide far better sightlines than anything Pimlico can hope to offer will certainly accompany a relocated Preakness.
DeFrancis is a diehard and has his own vision for a successful coexistence between Laurel Park and Pimlico. As race fans know, the bulk of Maryland thoroughbred racing occurs at Laurel, and that is not changing. At the same time, there is the legendary site of the Preakness within the city.
DeFrancis suggests that Laurel be outfitted to deal with the smaller crowds of year-round daily racing and that $100 million or so could give a restored Pimlico adequate luxury seating, such as the type used at major golf tournaments, for its once-a-year big weekend of the Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan Day.
While it may seem inefficient on the surface, the separation of sports venues for the purpose of better serving specific functions has been a winner for cities, DeFrancis said.
However, events in the weeks leading to this year’s Preakness certainly seemed to presage a move to Laurel. In April, the Maryland Jockey Club took about 6,700 seats out of service at Pimlico due to deterioration. Meanwhile, early in May, the MJC broke ground on Laurel Park Station for 220 condominiums and townhouses. The grand plan is for 1,000 residential units that are served by a MARC rail station.
Retail and restaurants and offices are also planned, and central to this 63-acre mixed-used development is a new Laurel Park.
There is still an impediment for the MJC simply moving the Preakness — a state law that prohibits taking the race out of the city barring “disaster or emergency.” Therein lies an interpretation of “emergency” and the issue of politics.
Yet, there is a sense of inevitability regarding the Preakness’ future, just like Smarty Jones striding the final half-furlong to the Preakness finish line.
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Borowski/PressBox
Issue 254: May 2019