Pimlico likely needs ‘complete rebuild’ to preserve Preakness


By Jeff Barker - The Baltimore Sun



Preserving the 147-year-old Pimlico Race Course as the home of the Preakness likely would require rebuilding the track at a cost of $300 million to $500 million, according to its owner — which has no plans to foot the bill.

Simply renovating the faded track wouldn’t elevate it to the standards required for the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the racing division of the Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

“What we’d want to see is a complete rebuild,” Ritvo said this week.

Questions have long loomed about the future of Pimlico and who might pay to renovate or rebuild the storied track, which borders on the rough Park Heights neighborhood. The Maryland Stadium Authority has estimated that renovating the track would cost $250 million to $320 million.

With Pimlico growing more and more obsolete, Stronach eventually could seek to move the Preakness to Laurel, where the company has invested $35 million on upgrades. Any move would need a change to state law which, barring disaster, requires the race to be run in Baltimore.

Others see potential in trying to preserve the Preakness at Pimlico.

”Baltimore has one of the unique races in the world,” said Paul Roberts of London-based Turnberry Consulting, which specializes in racetrack development. “I certainly wouldn’t be giving up on it.”

Ritvo said Stronach would continue to work with state and local government officials on what to do about Pimlico and could be part of a partnership if there was a “huge” public commitment.

“We’ve not given up on any options for Pimlico,” he said. “No one could say that we haven’t tried.”

But the company considers it impractical to spend up to $500 million for a track that currently stages just 12 racing days a year, Ritvo said.

“We don’t have the funding to tear it down and rebuild it like we did at Gulfstream,” a track in Florida, he said.

It’s not clear how much appetite the state has to help.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Monday night that “Stronach has played its card. It might be the first volley in some kind of discussion of ‘Where do we go from here?’ The bottom line is it’s a negotiation here. Obviously they’re not putting in any money if the city and state aren’t.”

Busch said the future of the Preakness in Baltimore “could be a big issue next year” in the General Assembly. In the meantime, he said it’s “very tough” to even imagine the departure from Baltimore of “a national event that has a tremendous amount of history to it and is really reflective of Baltimore City.”

Ritvo’s assessment — five days before the Preakness — was particularly detailed and stark.

“We have a track that runs 150 days a year,” Ritvo said of Laurel. “We just don’t have the money to invest into two facilities.”

The Maryland Stadium Authority is planning a new study assessing possibilities for modernizing Pimlico, but its scope and timetable have not been determined. It will be paid for by the stadium authority, Stronach and the Baltimore Development Corp.

While Stronach may not want to invest much in Pimlico, others see possibilities for the track in Northwest Baltimore that could help preserve it as the host of the state’s largest sporting event.

Roberts, the racetrack consultant, suggested stretching the Preakness into a weeklong festival, while Baltimore developer David Cordish, who once tried to buy Pimlico, sees an entertainment district akin to those he has developed near sports venues in Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and other cities.

“You create retail and entertainment and residential — mixed use — and it could be part of a redeveloped Pimlico,” said Cordish, whose development company owns Power Plant Live in Baltimore and Maryland Live casino. “It’s very viable.”

Seven miles northwest of downtown Baltimore, the “Old Hilltop” track is steeped in history. It is where Man o’ War romped to victory in 1920 and the first tote board was introduced in 1933. Seabiscuit upset War Admiral there in 1938 and Secretariat overwhelmed the field in 1973.

But vast sections of Pimlico have a patched-together, industrial look. There are mismatched colors and materials. The clubhouse — where high-end guests dine — has not undergone significant renovation since it was constructed 57 years ago.

“You need to make the experience enjoyable from the parking lot all the way into the track,” said John Blackburn, a Washington-based architect whose equestrian renovation projects include Sagamore Farm, owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. “You don’t want to feel on an off-peak day that you’re going into a desolate or abandoned building.”

Park Heights contains more than 2,000 vacant lots and buildings and its violent crime rate is 14 percent higher than the city’s as a whole, according to the first phase of a stadium authority study of the track released in February.

“Unfortunately, it’s a high-crime area,” Ritvo said. “There have been a lot of killings around the area.”

But a recent stadium authority study also said there have been “very few reported incidents affecting Preakness attendees,” and none of the architects or developers interviewed said location was a reason to move an event that reported record attendance of 135,256 in 2016 and generates more than $30 million each year.

Cordish said “people with money are close by” the track, and that it is easily accessible via the Jones Falls Expressway.

“You just have to give them something on nonracing days,” Cordish said. “Traditional malls are struggling. People are more and more attracted to these mixed-use projects. You can’t buy it on Amazon. It’s social — you’ve got to go to it.”

Roberts said a track’s location “isn’t as much of a detractor as the racecourse itself.”

Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Golf Tournament, “isn’t set in the most attractive part of Georgia but it would be revered as one of the most iconic places in sports,” he said.

Roberts proposed turning the Preakness into “a weeklong festival with the right types of facilities, and then you should be able to generate sufficient income to allow you to slowly and incrementally improve the facility. When people start to see programs and improvement and change, they keep coming back.”

Currently, Pimlico’s principal pre-Preakness event is the Black-Eyed Susan race card on the Friday before the big event. It drew 47,956 last year.

In Florida, Stronach worked with local authorities to turn the area around the Gulfstream track, near Miami and Fort Lauderdale, into an entertainment complex with high-end stores, bars and restaurants.

“When you invest $300 million to $500 million, you actually want to reinvigorate the whole area — almost like the Gulfstream model with villages and restaurants and supermarkets,” Ritvo said.

Concerns about crime and the condition of the neighborhood would make such a project near Pimlico a “high-risk gamble,” Ritvo said.

But M.J. “Jay” Brodie, former president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said Pimlico presents an opportunity.

“Obviously the better Park Heights gets, that’s helpful,” Brodie said. “It’s an exciting possibility to get mixed-use as well as a new facility for the track itself. I would like to think it’s possible.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who said she is committed to keeping the Preakness in the city, has floated the idea of establishing a tax increment financing zone for Park Heights. The city would sell bonds to fund infrastructure for development in the area.

Stronach has spent about $35 million on upgrades at Laurel compared to $8 million on Pimlico renovations in the past 2 { years, according to Ritvo.

State law says the race can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency,” so the Stronach Group would need legislative support to move the Preakness to Laurel.

“It’s not about a money grab for the Stronach Group, it’s about the future of the Preakness,” Ritvo said. “It’s always an amazing race. We just believe it could be so much better in a nicer building.”

Cordish suggested Stronach could tap money set aside from state’s share of casino revenue to support horse racing in the state to obtain financing. Under state law, 6 percent of casino slot machine revenue goes toward racetrack purses and another 1 percent goes into a racetrack facilities fund.

Each track — Pimlico, Laurel, Ocean Downs and Rosecroft — regularly submits capital improvement projects for state review. To be eligible, they must spend at least $1.5 million a year and, if approved, the track receives 50 percent reimbursement.

About $7 million is distributed from the facilities fund each year, according to state records.

“The key ingredient is a guaranteed income stream,” Cordish said. “It is dedicated to capital improvements and there are no expenses against it.”

Asked about the fund, Ritvo said it is typically used “more for maintenance to help keep the facilities up to the highest standard.”

Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg said he hopes key decisions about Pimlico’s future can be made during the 2018 legislative session. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, would like the second phase of the authority’s study to be completed before the session is concluded.

“It would be helpful to get this done by December and not kick the can down the road,” Rosenberg said.

Said Ritvo: “We want to move as fast as we can. We’re dealing with an older building that we continue to patch up every year.”

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By Jeff Barker

The Baltimore Sun