Optimism rising about future of Pimlico with rebuild looming

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Frankie Brothers walked into the grandstand at Pimlico Race Course in the late 1980s and early ’90s with his head on a swivel.

“I always made sure I knew where the exit was because if somebody dropped a cigarette or something like that, that place would’ve went up in flames,” the longtime trainer said. “Just an old, historic place.”

Pimlico is still that old, historic place as it’s set to host the 146th Preakness on Saturday. While Bob Baffert-trained Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a postrace drug test hangs over this year’s Preakness, there’s a renewed sense of long-term optimism about the home of the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

After years of uncertainty during which the building continued to deteriorate, the owners of the track and government officials reached an agreement to rebuild Pimlico and keep the Preakness in Baltimore.

“Coming together and getting that done was pretty sensational on their part,” said Gary McGuigan, executive vice president of the Maryland Stadium Authority that will oversee design and construction. “Now, do we have a lot of work to do? Sure. Getting operational and financial and land-transfer agreements in place is still a lot of work to do, but, yeah I’d say there’s optimism that it’s moving forward to getting completed.”

There’s still no timetable on when shovels will go into the ground, and work may not be completed until sometime in 2023 – perhaps in time for the Preakness that year, with a chance that it’s not ready until the 2024 Triple Crown. But after track problems at nearby Laurel Park moved racing to Pimlico earlier than normal this spring, there has never been more appreciation for the old place that’s set to get a completely overhaul in the coming years.

“It’s just part of history,” said Brothers, who won the 1991 Preakness with Hansel. “It’s just a special place.”

The project, which includes work at Laurel, comes at a cost of $375 million in bonds and is still in the planning stages. An architectural firm that signed on in February is assessing the situation, and McGuigan pointed out there are still many more agreements that need to be signed before a wrecking ball is on site.

“It is a facility that’s been in disrepair and unfortunately some things out of people’s control, but it needs to be replaced and we’re really looking forward to the day when we can put on the Preakness in the kind of environment that it deserves,” said Craig Fravel, CEO of 1/ST Racing, which owns Pimlico. “It’s a really nice thing to have something to look forward and a process that is well underway.”

It’s coming. Even the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t alter the plans for Pimlico, which include shifting the oval track 30 degrees to make better use of the land and making it a multiuse facility for the weeks when horses aren’t running there.

Ordinarily, that’s just three weeks or so each year. But after the main surface at Laurel didn’t respond well enough to winter maintenance repairs, racing in Maryland shifted to Pimlico two weeks early and will continue there until further notice.

“We’ve had some difficulties with the racetrack at Laurel,” Fravel said. “You wake up sometimes with a dozen surprises, but people have been remarkably patient. I think having (upcoming construction) to look forward to is an important part of this overall mix here.”

The important part for the city was keeping the Preakness in Baltimore, rather than a relocation to Laurel or perhaps out of state if Pimlico became so dilapidated it couldn’t continue hosting the race. Those fears are gone now, replaced by a waiting game until construction of the new Pimlico begins.

“The Preakness is the second jewel of the Triple Crown,” Fravel said. “It deserves a home that matches the stature of that event and the place the Triple Crown holds in the traditions of thoroughbred racing.”