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Report: Pimlico should be demolished

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BALTIMORE — The nearly 150-year-old Baltimore track that hosts one of America’s premier horse races should be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of $424 million, according to a report issued Thursday.

The Maryland Stadium Authority, in the second phase of a comprehensive study of Pimlico Race Course, recommends demolishing all existing structures at the historic track that hosts the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing.

The rundown condition of the aging Baltimore track presents challenges threatening the “continued existence and the success of the Preakness Stakes,” according to a summary of the conclusions.

The Maryland agency said that despite the track’s physical condition, there does not appear to be “situational factors” such as the surrounding city neighborhood of Park Heights and accessibility issues that would “negatively affect Pimlico Race Course’s ability to remain the long-term home of the Preakness Stakes.”

The Stronach Group, a Canada-based development company that owns and operates Pimlico, has looked at a fresher track it owns in Laurel Park – located about 30 miles south of the Baltimore track- as a viable option for the Preakness. Under state law, the race can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”

In a Thursday statement, Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of The Stronach Group, agreed with the study’s findings and called for collaborative action by state and city authorities during Maryland’s upcoming legislative session in Annapolis.

“A successful and viable future for Maryland Racing requires an industry encompassing and thoughtful capital plan that looks beyond one weekend of celebration to achieving great success year-round,” the statement said.

The company has previously suggested it could be open to a public-private partnership.

Sandy Rosenberg, a state Democratic lawmaker whose district includes the Pimlico track, said the study sets forth a blueprint for “an extraordinary community development opportunity on the racetrack site that would also allow us to transform the current Pimlico into a 21st century racing facility.”

He said it’s important to understand what the redevelopment would do for the other 51 weeks of the year when the Preakness isn’t running. He noted the study recommends adding infrastructure around the track including a central plaza, various shops and a hotel.

“It’s putting on the table for public consideration a proposal that would be of great benefit 52 weeks out of the year to northwest Baltimore, the city and the region and to the racing industry, especially during that one week of the Preakness,” Rosenberg said.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city strongly endorsed the redevelopment plan recommended by the Maryland Stadium Authority, saying the economic opportunity it would bring could dramatically revitalize an area that’s experienced disinvestment for decades.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he’s always been supportive of keeping Preakness at Pimlico and would review the study in coming days.

Back in its heyday, Pimlico hosted many of the sport’s most memorable races: Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral in 1938; Man o’ War’s debut in 1920 with a stunning win over Upset; and Secretariat’s last-to-first victory during his Triple Crown run in 1973.

Though work crews have found a way to make the track presentable for the Preakness every year on the third Saturday in May, many racing fans have said the need for a dramatic makeover has been blatantly obvious for many years.

New England’s last thoroughbred horse track winds down

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BOSTON — New England’s last thoroughbred horse track, Boston’s Suffolk Downs, is hosting its final live races this weekend, but it’s not clear what comes next for the industry, which continues to receive millions of dollars in casino tax subsidies.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the company that operates the once grand, 84-year old track, has been running a handful of summertime races since losing out on its bid to build a resort casino on the property in 2014.

Two years ago, it sold the property – where the Depression-era champion Seabiscuit was discovered by the team that launched him into the limelight – to a real estate developer that plans to build apartments, condominiums and offices on the 161-acre property straddling Boston and Revere.

But Sterling Suffolk still wants to remain in the racing business and is betting on legislative approval this year to make that happen.

The company has proposed restoring the Great Barrington Fairgrounds near the New York state line while keeping its more lucrative simulcast and online betting operations in the Boston area. Current regulations don’t allow for a state-licensed race operator to split its operations this way.

The company is also seeking permission to tap into a special state fund for the horse racing industry in order to make improvements at the track. It also wants to extend the length of its racing license from one year to 10 years.

The Race Horse Development Fund is funded by gambling revenues from the state’s three casinos – Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park. But under state regulations, the money must be dedicated largely to horse racing purses and benefits for industry workers. Capital projects like improving a racetrack aren’t permitted uses.

“It doesn’t do the horsemen any good if there’s money building up in that fund and they don’t have any place to run and compete for it,” Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer for Sterling Suffolk, said Friday.

Restoring the Great Barrington track would cost up to $15 million and require extending the length of the half-mile track, as well as renovating the grandstand, he said. The track, which hasn’t hosted horse races since 1998, could be ready by next fall.

“Great Barrington works because it’s a more reasonable option than starting from scratch,” Tuttle said. “But it’s not really practical for us to take on the complete refurbishment of that property unless we have a longer term license and the certainty that comes with it.”

At least one industry group opposes the idea.

The Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association backs a separate bill that would require licensed racing operators host at least 60 race days a year. Sterling Suffolk’s bill would require at least one race day annually and Tuttle said the company only envisions hosting a handful of race days initially at Great Barrington.

“Not until we get a full time track will we see the benefits of the horse racing industry in terms of horse breeding, farms, agriculture and open space,” said Bill Lagorio, the organization’s president. “Folks are raising horses in New York and running them in Massachusetts for a few weeks. That’s not doing anything for this state.”

Tuttle says Lagorio’s group is an “outlier” and does not represent the majority of the region’s horse owners and breeders.

Two other industry groups – New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association – support the proposal, he noted.

The competing proposals and other bills related to the horse racing industry are being considered at a Statehouse hearing Monday.

In the meantime, casino revenues continue to accrue in the Race Horse Development Fund.

To date, nearly $56 million has been paid out — $21 million to the thoroughbred industry and another $34 million to the separate harness racing industry, according to Massachusetts Gaming Commission data.

The harness racing industry continues to run regular races at Plainridge Park’s track and has steadily spent down most of its funding. But the thoroughbred industry, which has long been anchored at Suffolk Downs, has nearly $13 million in its coffers, and growing.

Breeders’ Cup to stay at Santa Anita this year

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LOS ANGELES — The Breeders’ Cup world championships will remain at Santa Anita this fall after 30 horses died during the Southern California track’s recent meet.

The Breeders’ Cup board of directors unanimously decided to keep the two-day event at the track in Arcadia for a record 10th time on Nov. 1-2. The board made its decision at a meeting Thursday in Lexington, Kentucky.

Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, says the ownership of Santa Anita along with other groups has made “meaningful and effective reforms” in recent months to improve safety. He says the Breeders’ Cup embraces those reforms and will devote time and energy in the coming months to further those efforts.

The 30 horse deaths occurred during Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet that began Dec. 26 and ended Sunday.