BALTIMORE — A survey of the parking lot outside Pimlico Race Course this week provides an illustration of how trifling sports are at this moment in time.
During a week when the course otherwise would be preparing for the Preakness Stakes and all the hoopla that comes with it, like InfieldFest and the Black-eyed Susan Stakes, the lot instead is filled with beige and green tents, orange traffic cones and Maryland National Guard members. Since April 10, it’s been home to a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site, the first to open in Baltimore.
There will be no Preakness run this Saturday due to the coronavirus, just as there was no Kentucky Derby two weeks before. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Belinda Stronach, president of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, will announce the Preakness’s new date during a TV interview Saturday; reports said there are three possibilities, one each in July, August and October.
The Preakness’ future looks much brighter than its present, after passage of the Racing and Community Development Act means Pimlico and Laurel Park Race Course in Anne Arundel County will be renovated at an estimated cost of $375 million — and, critically, the Preakness will stay at Pimlico long-term.
But for now, the absence of big races this week is having far-reaching consequences on Maryland’s horse racing industry and those who work in it.
The profits the Maryland Jockey Club generates during the week of the Preakness benefit the state’s racing industry year-round. The whole supply chain is “comprised, essentially, of small businesses,” from horse breeders and owners to the trainers, jockeys and equine veterinarians, said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“There’s no money coming into the system, which has put a strain certainly on owners, very much on trainers — their ability to retain their backstretch personnel — and again it feeds right through that chain of suppliers and others who benefit from the money that gets churned through the system,” Foreman said.
The postponement of these nationally-televised races has little precedent. Horse racing historian and author Jennifer Kelly said this year marks the first time any of the Triple Crown jewels have been postponed since 1945, when all three races were run in June just after World War II ended and a temporary ban on racing was lifted.
“It compromises everyone’s ability to make a living, from the owners down to the people who work on the backstretch and work with the horses day to day,” Kelly said.
The financial effects will also be felt at the city and state levels, with food and beverage sales, wagering profits and corporate sales down the drain.
Horse racing wasn’t canceled everywhere in the U.S. when the pandemic hit, and in some parts the sport is making a cautious comeback. The Florida Derby was contested in late March and the Arkansas Derby ran earlier this month — both without fans at the track. Churchill Downs reopened its stables this week, and races will resume Saturday at the famed course in Louisville, Kentucky, also with empty stands.
Foreman said the Maryland racing community is making preparations to restart, spectator-free, as soon as the state gives the go-ahead. A week of live racing without spectators was held as a precaution before Hogan instituted a stay-at-home order and closure of nonessential businesses in March. Horses in Maryland are still being cared for, which Foreman said is the industry’s chief concern while they cannot race.
Whenever sports can return, better days lie ahead for the Preakness, which has been the Triple Crown’s middle jewel since 1931. Pimlico may not be the prettiest or most modern place — “I was at the Preakness last year, so I can say that Pimlico is in dire need of update,” Kelly said — but on Sunday Hogan passed a bill into law that will lead to the course’s refurbishment.
In early 2019, the Stronach Group threatened to move the Preakness from Pimlico to Laurel, taking the race away from the course it has called home for most of its existence. Baltimore sued to stop them. Foreman mentioned the “psychology” of the city after it lost the NFL’s Colts to Indianapolis in the 1980s.
“The Preakness is the biggest event in Baltimore City, and if the city lost that, particularly given the difficult time the city has endured over the past five years, it would be a devastating blow to the city,” Foreman said.
Many in the racing community hoped it wouldn’t change venues, too.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who didn’t want the Preakness to move, and they felt like moving it to Laurel would change that tradition, but also make it harder for people to go and enjoy it because Laurel is not the same size that Pimlico is,” Kelly said. That, and Laurel needed a facelift just as badly as Pimlico did.
This led to negotiations last summer that included Foreman representing the racing community, former City Council member William H. Cole IV representing Baltimore and Alan Rifkin from the Maryland Jockey Club. They struck a deal to have the Maryland Stadium Authority fund renovations of both courses through the sale of 30-year municipal bonds, which Foreman said will be paid with money already allocated to the industry — no new expenditures for the state or for taxpayers.
As for 2020, Kelly said she’ll be shocked if there is a Triple Crown winner due to the unusual schedule. The Preakness might be run before the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 90 years, and the Belmont Stakes’ position — and the fact that it’s the longest of the three races, at a mile and a half — is another potential monkey wrench in the proceedings.
However, Kelly said, “I think in general, I’m sure I’m not one of the only people that sits there and goes, I’ll just be happy if they have them at all.”
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