Blackout puts spotlight on Pimlico Preakness trouble raises concern about old track

May 24, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Sarah Pekkanen contributed to this article.

At its northernmost end, the vast grandstand of Pimlico Race Course is held aloft by a series of timbers likely milled and erected during the administration of President Grover Cleveland.

A bolt here and bracket there have kept them straight and strong for more than a century. Such patching has kept Pimlico open longer than all but one other American race course. Still, the partial blackout during the Preakness eight days ago drew attention to the deteriorating condition of Old Hilltop, which is more of a relic than a museum piece.

Fans, horsemen, and regulators have complained for years about Pimlico. The state is studying the possibility of taking it over. Some sportswriters have even suggested the track be dropped from the Triple Crown and another race substituted -- a unlikely event, but the mere mention of it demonstrates how far Pimlico's reputation has fallen.

"The backstretch is really dilapidated. Pipes are giving out. The wiring is going bad. I think if they are going to keep racing, then they need to upgrade," said Hubert "Sonny" Hine, a trainer with bases in New York, Florida and Kentucky who got his start in Maryland and has competed in six Preakness Stakes.

Hine said he is always treated well at Pimlico by the staff and management. But the facility doesn't compare well to its two Triple Crown sisters, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and Belmont Park in New York.

"Those two other parks are much better than Pimlico. No doubt about that," Hine said.

Churchill Downs and Triple Crowns Productions Inc. president Thomas Meeker declined to comment on Pimlico, other than to say through a spokesman that dropping the track from the Triple Crown "has never been discussed, and it's not an issue worth discussing."

Safe, but out of date

Martin P. Azola, vice president of facilities for the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of both Pimlico and Laurel Park, said the company budgeted $993,000 for capital improvements to Pimlico this year. The entrance way was renovated, new motors installed in the air conditioning units and a mini-museum built to display track artifacts.

Pimlico is structurally safe and sound but functionally out of date, he said. A big part of the problem is that the sport has changed since even the newest portions of the complex were designed, when Pimlico's summer meets consisted of only live racing viewed from open-air grandstands. There was no need for heat, air conditioning or television monitors.

Although there has been much renovation, the track's structure consists of three basic portions, each built with the materials of its era: the northernmost end constructed of wood in the late 1800s, the middle grandstands built of steel around 1910, and the main clubhouse, made with reinforced concrete in 1954.

"It's like an old house that's been added to and remodeled over the years. There's nothing wrong with the structure. It's in good shape," Azola said.

But it's expensive to run. Pimlico is as long as the Empire State Building is tall, and the enclosed space ranks it among the biggest buildings in the city. Attendance ranges from a few hundred patrons most days to more than 90,000 on Preakness day.

As recently as 15 years ago, a Saturday might bring out 18,000 fans, close to what the buildings were designed to accommodate. Now, due to declining popularity and the opening of off-track wagering parlors, a good day brings out 4,000 people. The same area needs to be cleaned and maintained, Azola said.

Half its pipes are old-fashioned galvanized steel, although they are gradually being replaced with copper. Its electrical system consists of seven transformers feeding a labyrinth of wires and functions. The air is cooled by 26 air conditioning units, each the size of a minivan, mounted on rooftops.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the partial blackout on Preakness day, and it may turn out to be a relatively modern piece of electrical equipment that failed.

Although the track hasn't had a serious fire for a while, it has had lots of minor ones. The fire department was called in on Preakness day to extinguish a smoldering cigarette under a wooden section of the grandstands. Guards routinely patrol this area at night after big races, looking for smoke to be sure a similar incident doesn't bring the place down.

Baltimore Fire Department spokesman and Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said regular inspections of the track over the years have revealed no hazards out of the ordinary for a building of its size and type. "Pimlico has been very willing to work with the Fire Department to correct any violations found," Torres said.

Some of the wooden barns surrounding the track date to the early part of the century. The result is both an eyesore for neighbors and a drag on horse trainers trying to entice investors to buy horses with visits to the stalls.

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