The Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland is one of the country’s oldest and most celebrated thoroughbred horse racing facilities. It’s best known as the home of the Preakness Stakes, which is the 2nd leg of horse racing’s ‘Triple Crown’ and takes place every year on the third Saturday in May. Aside from this marquee event, Pimlico has a long and colorful history dating back to its official opening in 1870. The fortunes of the track have had its ups and downs but it has established itself as one of the best known horse racing venues in the country.
Competitive horse racing at Pimlico started when it opened in 1870, and the winner of the first stakes race—the Dinner Party Stakes—was a colt named ‘Preakness’ who would become the namesake of the track’s signature event. Another huge event in horse racing history took place in 1938, when the legendary Sea Biscuit beat War Admiral in a match race held before what was then a record crowd of 43,000 spectators.
The facility has a one mile dirt oval track and a seven furlong turf track. There stabling for nearly 1,000 horses on site and the Pimlico facility has a spectator capacity of roughly 120,000. Pimlico is often affectionately referred to as “Old Hilltop”—specifically, this is a small hill in the infield which is a popular vantage point for spectators.
More so than its Triple Crown counterparts in Kentucky and New York, Pimlico has had more than its share of turmoil over the years that continues to this day. It has survived the Great Depression, the 1904 Baltimore fire, several riots, Prohibition and anti-gambling hysteria in the early 1900’s. It has managed to survive due to its significance to the community both historically and financially. Former Pimlico President, Vanderbilt family heir and noted horseman Alfred G. Vanderbilt summed up the importance of the facility: “Pimlico is more than a dirt track bounded by four streets. It is an accepted American institution, devoted to the best interests of a great sport, graced by time, respected for its honorable past.”
Unfortunately, the track may now be facing the greatest threat to its longterm viability as a significant horse racing facility. Pimlico is currently owned by the Maryland Jockey Club, a partnership between MI Development and Penn National Gaming. They purchased Pimlico along with the Laurel Park track from the previous owners Magna Entertainment Corporation after their filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. MI Development will receive the tracks from Magna in exchange for paying $25 million to Maryland Jockey Club creditors and $89 million to other creditors through a new reorganization plan. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court has until April 30th of this year to approve Magna’s reorganization plan.
The future of the Preakness Stakes 2011 is likely secured, but a more ambitious schedule of horse racing has become very problematic. The ownership initially wanted to add slot machines and create a ‘racino’ as have many other tracks around the country. The State of Maryland denied this request for a slots license due in large part to a short sighted and self serving campaign by a local homeowners group called the Mount Washington Improvement Association.
Concerned about the financial viability of the track, the new ownership submitted a plan for 146 days of racing, with horse owners surrendering simulcasting revenue and an additional $1.7 million to the track. This request was denied, after which the owners offered 78 days of racing, with no concession but the $1.7 million. This was also turned down by the Maryland Racing Commission in late December. At this point, the future of the entire Maryland horse racing industry is in limbo and developments over the next few months could determine its fate.