Down the Stretch We’ve Come

By Maryland GovPics — Flickr: The 138th Annual Preakness, CC BY 2.0,

Thirty four years ago, after Mayflower trucks pulled out of Owings Mills, carting the rotting carcass of a once-proud Baltimore Colts franchise out of town, many around here knew that even if Robert Irsay took the team and the history out of Baltimore, so long as the team wore blue and white, a horseshoe, and called itself Colts, there was no way to ever take Baltimore fully out of the team. Baltimore gave the team that name, a nod to the history of horse racing in Baltimore, embodied in the second jewel of racing’s triple crown, the Preakness Stakes.

And now, even that history appears to be coming to an end.

The COO of Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico Race Course, as well as the Preakness itself, has all but explicitly stated that next year’s race will be the last at Old Hilltop. Plans look to be for the race to move down to Laurel Park, and even likely, all racing, as they run more dates at Laurel already.

Last year, the Maryland Stadium Authority released a report stating that Pimlico needed several hundred million dollars in renovations, but the owners have no interest in investing any of their own money into the facility, stating a preference for the city and state to make the necessary investments. They may have already made the decision to move down Route 1 or they may be genuinely willing to run the race (and other racing events) in Baltimore, provided that the city and state take on more financial burden. It’s almost impossible that they have not seen the city, while declaring poverty and planning to hit up local rich folks for donations, lavish tax breaks on projects like Michael Beatty’s Harbor Point and Kevin Plank’s Port Covington projects. They’ve surely seen the city paying out millions in overtime for police, essentially without a proper audit of the spending. Who would be surprised if they really want the city and state to foot the bill, since the city seems to be throwing money around so generously in other places.

In the wake of the Colts leaving in 1984, the state formed the Maryland Stadium Authority, which took on the responsibility of building and operating stadiums to make sure the Orioles stayed in Baltimore and to lure another NFL team to Baltimore, which would eventually become the Ravens. Yet, in the current political climate where the Governor would cancel a mass transit project in Baltimore in favor of a reconfiguration of bus routes, it would seem unlikely the state would be willing to take on a different financial responsibility in Baltimore, especially when there’s a no-build option right down I-95.

At the beginning of Preakness weekend, Mayor Catherine Pugh announced a set of improvements in the surrounding Park Heights community, aimed at making the area more hospitable to a continued racing presence in Northwest Baltimore. Still, it seems that comes too late to save the Preakness and Pimlico.

Things didn’t have to be this way.

The conditions at Pimlico and Park Heights aren’t a new thing.

Even back 10, 20 years ago, discussions were going on about Pimlico and the future of horse racing in Baltimore. There was even talk of a new Pimlico, to be built in Westport as part of developer Patrick Turner’s ill-fated plans for that area, another project for which the city agreed to a huge TIF. Still, the administration of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threw its support behind auto racing, which didn’t work out, as well as the previously mentioned Port Covington project, whose fate is still up in the air. In years before, it was Harborplace. Harbor Point. Charles Center. The city’s development dollars have flowed freely towards Downtown and the waterfront, with not nearly as much going in the other direction.

Or, in other words, the city has been punting on the issue of Pimlico for decades now and now, the city might have run out of time.

Losing the Preakness would be the latest psychological blow, and the biggest in a long time. Even as the Orioles stayed and Oriole Park at Camden Yards has become known as one of the best ballparks, year in and year out, as the Ravens became a perennial contender and two-time Super Bowl Champion, as Harborplace continues to be a popular destination, the city’s image continues to take huge hits. The killing of Freddie Gray and the subsequent uprising. The Wire. The murder rate. The unsolved killing of a police detective. The Gun Trace Task Force. A now-former police commissioner who resigned after news that he didn’t file tax returns for years. These are what Baltimore is becoming known for. The Preakness was one day when Baltimore could be seen, not perhaps at its best, but better than most days.

And now, Baltimore faces the loss of an event that, at one point, helped to define Baltimore. While the Ravens have been contenders more times than not over their young history and the Orioles were contenders and champions from the mid 60’s to the 80’s, Preakness Saturday has been a given in Baltimore. And while the race won’t be decamping out of state, unlike the football team, it’s another part of civic history and pride lost when Baltimore really needs a win.