Bill Cole On Preakness Deal: ‘You Have To Fight Like Hell’ To Keep Race In Baltimore

It looks like the Preakness could be here to stay for at least the next few decades.

Plans of a $375.5 million project to rebuild and improve Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park were revealed in an Oct. 4 letter. The large majority of the funding would come through a bond offering from the Maryland Stadium Authority, but to pay off the bond, the state’s casinos would have to extend their horse racing subsidy.

After years and years of debate and discussion, those who feared the Preakness Stakes leaving Baltimore may be able to breathe a sigh of relief after this potential breakthrough.

“The history of the Preakness is important,” Bill Cole, who helped negotiate the deal for the city, said on Glenn Clark Radio Oct. 7. “I lived through the Colts leaving in the middle of the night and while this might not be quite at that level, it’s pretty darn close. You have to fight like hell for an event that means that much to the city.”

Pimlico has long been in need of renovations. The Maryland Stadium Authority released two reports — one in 2017 and another in December 2018 — addressing the problems at Pimlico. The second report presented options for demolishing the current race track and rebuilding a new Pimlico. The estimated cost was more than $400 million.

This new agreement would allot around $200 million toward the demolition and rebuilding of Pimlico. The approximately $175 million remaining would be used toward improving Laurel.

“This solution provides a sustainable fix for horse racing for at least the next 30 years,” Cole said. “I think it’s the first time that the industry would ever be able to say that.”

For some time, Laurel was rumored to become the new home of the Preakness if significant measures weren’t taken toward improving the existing conditions at Pimlico. Things have seemed to take a positive turn thanks to productive negotiations between the city and The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, Laurel, the Preakness and the Maryland Jockey Club.

“Mayor [Jack] Young deserves a lot of credit. He reached out very directly to Belinda Stronach, the president of The Stronach Group, at the Preakness this year,” Cole said. “The mayor had a pretty direct, personal conversation with Belinda.”

In May, the city sued the group for attempting to move the Preakness out of Baltimore. Headway was made once the lawsuit was dropped, and a 120-day negotiating period was set between the two parties. Now, an initial agreement is in place.

However, this agreement means nothing without approval from the Maryland General Assembly, which convenes in January.

“There’s no guarantee heading into a legislative session that anything is a given,” Cole said. “We’re very, very confident that when legislators have an opportunity to scrutinize the deal and understand the structure, they will be very supportive.”

The vision is not just to save the Preakness, though that’s a big part of it. New renderings of the re-imagined Pimlico portray a multi-use facility that will be used far more often than the one May weekend during which the race takes place.

Among some of the new additions to the facility would be six athletic fields in the infield area and new event space that doubles as the new clubhouse for the race.

“Simply fixing Pimlico in a vacuum doesn’t solve the issues in the surrounding community,” Cole said. “This project will inject hundreds of millions in private development in Park Heights that will go a long way towards fixing the generational issues that have plagued Park Heights. It’s jobs, it’s economic development, it’s amenities that the community has begged for, and it’s all baked into this project.”

The Preakness is known for more than just the race — it’s known for the famous infield, too, with events like InfieldFest, an annual music festival held on Preakness Day. To lose that atmosphere through this renovation would prevent any growth in fan interest, according to Cole.

The Maryland Jockey Club has “said repeatedly that they wanna do everything they can to make certain that the Preakness Stakes is a multi-generational event,” Cole said. “Horse racing is only going to survive if we can get young people engaged and attracted to it, and the InfieldFest has been a part of that.”

There’s no reason to believe InfieldFest can’t stay the same, according to Cole.

“Nothing in the designs would preclude them from having an InfieldFest and there’s nothing with these designs that would make it any smaller,” Cole said.

For Cole and everyone else who has been working tirelessly on this agreement, the most important part is trying to make certain that the Preakness stays in Baltimore.

“We think this is the first solution, living within our means, that preserves the Preakness at Pimlico and preserves horse racing in Maryland for generations,” Cole said.

For more from Cole, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Maryland Jockey Club