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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.

Second horse in 4 days dies at Santa Anita

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Santa Anita had its second horse death in four days when a gelding pulled up during a race Sunday and was euthanized a day later.

Twenty-five horses have now died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Spectacular Music was running in a six-furlong maiden claiming race when the jockey pulled the horse up on the backstretch shortly after leaving the gate.

The horse was taken off the course with a pelvis injury and the decision to euthanize him was made Monday morning.

On Friday, a 3-year-old horse broke down with a shoulder injury while galloping and was euthanized at the track.

Santa Anita is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1-2. It’s considered the biggest two-day event in U.S. horse racing.

Preakness winner War of Will likely to run in Belmont

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BALTIMORE (AP) Owner Gary Barber called trainer Mark Casse for the fourth time in 11 hours since War of Will won the Preakness.

Only this time, Casse was in the middle of holding court with reporters the morning after his first Triple Crown victory.

“All’s good and we’re going to the Belmont?” Casse said to Barber with a Cheshire cat grin. “I was kidding. I was making that up.”

Well, not totally.

Assuming all goes well in the coming weeks, Casse said “there’s an extremely good shot” War of Will goes to the Belmont Stakes on June 8 in New York. If he wins, he’d be the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to fall short in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont and would be the front-runner for 3-year-old horse of the year.

“It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown, who doesn’t want to win it?” Casse said Sunday. “There are only three Triple Crown races, and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it you should do it. …

“That’s what we do. We run.”

Those watching the Preakness saw a horse run the entire race and then some after throwing off his jockey out of the starting gate, a scene that – once it was clear rider John Velazquez was OK – served as a reminder of how much thoroughbreds love to run. Bodexpress provided a memorable spectacle as War of Will fulfilled his potential at Pimlico.

The Belmont is another substantial test for the tough and talented War of Will because it’s a third race in six weeks and is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles.

There won’t be a Kentucky Derby rematch with Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interfering with War of Will, or Country House, who was placed first and since been sidelined by illness. And two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert said he probably won’t take Improbable to the Belmont after finishing out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as the favorite.

But War of Will could have to contend with Derby returners Tacitus, Master Fencer and perhaps Baffert’s Game Winner, along with Preakness surprise second-place finisher Everfast, third-place runner Owendale and ninth-place Signalman. Trainer Bill Mott ruled out Country House but is planning to take Tacitus to the Belmont and figures the gray colt will have no problem in a significantly longer race.

“He should handle it fine,” Mott said by phone Saturday. “My guess was that he’d handle the Derby distance fine, which he did. I was pleased. I think it goes the same for the Belmont. I think it’s within his grasp.”

If the Preakness had more than an extra quarter-mile, closers Everfast and Owendale might’ve put a scare into War of Will on Saturday. Everfast was a late entry by trainer Dale Romans three days before the race and opened at 50-1 but showed he might be a good long-distance runner.

“We almost had it,” Everfast jockey Joel Rosario said. “He ran great. We have a great shot at the Belmont.”

Tacitus, Everfast and Owendale will be strong challengers, but this should be War of Will’s Belmont to lose. Had he not endured such a rough trip in and been interfered with at Churchill Downs on May 4, there could be another wave of Triple Crown talk going on right now about a third winner in five years.

But Casse isn’t thinking about that, still grateful War of Will avoided going down in the Derby and was able to rebound and run well in the Preakness. He’ll monitor the horse back at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, to make sure a sore foot and his energy level are good enough to run in the Belmont on a three-week turnaround.

Casse can’t predict how War of Will responds this time, but he knows what it would mean if the horse comes out on top once again.

“He’s just an athlete,” Casse said. “It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things.”