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Historic section of Pimlico not safe for Preakness seating

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BALTIMORE — Nearly 6,700 grandstand seats at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course are not safe, an engineering firm has determined, meaning roughly 18 percent of the historic track’s seating capacity will be cordoned-off when it hosts one of America’s premier horse races next month.

Some city lawmakers assert that the looming closure of the northern grandstand adjacent to the clubhouse – the oldest section of seating with a capacity of 6,670 – illustrates how the Canada-based development company that owns and operates the track has systematically routed renovation cash away from the host of the Preakness Stakes. The storied race is the second-leg of the Triple Crown.

“This announcement underscores the core issue of renovation funding being intentionally steered away from Pimlico to help manufacture a crisis,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

Pimlico owner The Stronach Group says its hands are tied: An engineering firm has determined that the northern grandstand with those 6,670 seats can’t sustain that level of load bearing weight any longer. The announcement about the closure of the 125-year-old section of seating was made by the Maryland Jockey Club, a state sporting organization that called the closure a “difficult decision.”

It’s the latest chapter in a meandering saga pitting Stronach against Baltimore authorities desperately trying to hold onto the middle jewel of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. Thousands of racing fans will flock to Pimlico on May 18 for the 144th running of the Preakness.

There’s been no shortage of recent drama ratcheting up the dispute.

Most recently, a bill failed to pass in Maryland that would have allowed The Stronach Group to use state bonds for improvements at Laurel Park and Bowie Training Center, if it redeveloped the Pimlico Race Course. Baltimore’s House delegation opposed the move over concern about the company moving the Preakness out of the city where it was first run in 1873.

And last month, a lawsuit filed by Baltimore’s mayor, the City Council and three residents claimed Stronach was “openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating.”

Under state law, the Preakness Stakes can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.” Yet Stronach has made it abundantly clear it would like to move the race out of the city. Over the years, it has spent much of its state-subsidized renovation funds on boosting its newer track in Laurel, not the increasingly dilapidated Pimlico.

The announcement about safety concerns about Pimlico’s rickety grandstands is hardly out of the blue. A report issued late last year by the Maryland Stadium Authority recommended demolishing all existing structures at the historic track, asserting that the rundown condition of the aging Baltimore track presents challenges threatening the “continued existence and the success of the Preakness Stakes.” It called for the track to be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of $424 million.

According to the track’s website, the section of grandstands to be shut down represents some 47% of the roughly 14,000 seats in Pimlico’s clubhouse, main grandstand, old grandstand and sports palace and make up nearly 18% of the overall seating capacity for some 38,000 patrons. Another 82,000 people can cheer for their racing favorite in the standing room and infield areas.

The closure will be in effect for the entire Pimlico spring meeting, which includes the Preakness May 18. Tickets sold in the affected section for the Preakness can be traded in at face value for similar seating elsewhere.

A Stronach representative was due to speak about the decision Monday but officials ended up scrapping that news conference. A company official did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday.

Jockey suspended for using whip on another rider in Arkansas

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — A jockey has been suspended 60 days for misusing his whip – not on a horse – but on another rider in a race at an Arkansas track.

A stewards’ ruling posted Thursday on the Association of Racing Commissioners International website alleges that David Cohen “deliberately” whipped fellow jockey Edgar Morales several times during the eighth race at Oaklawn Park on April 6.

Cohen and his horse Bolita Boyz were forced wide into the stretch by Morales and No Funny Biz. The two raced side-by-side through the stretch, with Cohen whipping his mount left-handed and apparently also striking Morales.

Neither horse won the race.

Upon returning to the jockeys’ room, the ruling said that Morales confronted Cohen, telling him, “You whipped me more than you did your horse.” Morales testified at a hearing that Cohen replied, “Be patient and don’t take me wide.”

Morales testified he had four welts on his right thigh from Cohen’s whip. Although jockeys can be accidentally struck by a whip in a race, Morales told stewards that “it was not an accident, he meant to do it.”

According to the ruling, Cohen said he wouldn’t deliberately hit another jockey with his whip and that if it happened it was accidental.

The ruling said other riders and valets testified they overheard a discussion in the jockeys’ room and that they considered Cohen’s admission as indicative of a deliberate action rather than being accidental.

The stewards agreed with Morales after finding that Cohen’s action was deliberate and violated multiple rules. The stewards said Cohen’s actions jeopardized the safety of other jockeys and horses in the race.

Cohen’s suspension runs from April 27 to June 25.

He was earlier suspended for April 25 and 26 by the stewards as the result of careless riding in the eighth race at Oaklawn on April 7.

His agent, Bill Castle, is appealing both suspensions.

Cohen is second in the Oaklawn jockeys’ standings, with 59 wins from 258 mounts.

Santa Anita to run three days a week, hike purses for six weeks

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Santa Anita will race three days a week instead of four over the next four weeks because the track has lost some of its horse population to out-of-state venues.

Several stables have shipped horses to Kentucky to run at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, leaving Santa Anita with fewer horses to race and smaller field sizes.

Track officials have yet to decide whether to race three days or four for the final three weeks of the spring meet, which ends June 23.

The track said Friday it is raising purses for all non-stake races by $10,000 each for the next six weeks as a way to help owners and trainers who lost money when the track was closed for most of March.

The deaths of 23 horses since Dec. 26 forced the closure while the track’s dirt surface was examined. Racing resumed March 29, with one horse death occurring since then as the result of injuries in a turf race.

The purse increase announced Friday begins April 26 and runs through June 2. Track officials will decide later whether to continue it through the end of the meet.

The increase is being funded by existing excess money in the purse account and money from The Stronach Group, which owns the track.

Thoroughbred Owners of California chairman Nick Alexander says his group will match the purse supplements funded by TSG in the hopes of returning to racing four days a week.