Head back to the starting gate, give fans a Pimlico they deserve 124TH PREAKNESS

May 16, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

How much longer Pimlico Race Course remains in its present state, an all-but-worn-out facility offering neither charm nor comfort, depends on the continuing patience of the public and how much it is willing to endure. Forget the attachment for something that has grown outmoded -- the place should be torn down and a modern replacement created.

Despite the multitude in attendance for yesterday's Preakness, the ticket buyers put up with inconveniences they shouldn't be asked to accept when sports facilities are by design and appearance important to the crowd. Pimlico needs to make going there a dream rather than an afternoon "nightmare."

If thoroughbred racing is as important to Maryland as its adherents proclaim, then there's no reason for even modest deliberation. Making a decision should be automatic. It's ready-made. Pimlico needs to help itself by a makeover. Everything but the racing strip.

Action is needed, a policy agreed upon. There is no requirement for prolonged studies. Just put up the best clubhouse and grandstand on the face of the racing turf. Pimlico has never won any architectural awards, which is not surprising, because you only need look at what's there to realize it hasn't grown old gracefully and that it was never an eye-appealing showplace to begin with.

Sports spectators today, in Baltimore and other cities, have become quickly accustomed to first-rate accommodations when they spend money for admission. It's what they deserve. Pimlico is the second-oldest racetrack in America, with only Saratoga being older. But Saratoga offers a quaint appeal and amenities in a setting that Pimlico could never challenge.

There's no uniformity to the Pimlico plant because it's a patchwork of construction. The result is close to an embarrassment. The racing surface is first-rate and befits the Preakness, a true classic, but, unfortunately, spectator accommodations are minor-league.

How to finance a new Pimlico isn't that complex. It can be formulated by the sale of state lottery tickets, the same procedure used to build the baseball and football complex at Camden Yards. The state can't say it's not interested, because of the tax money racing generates.

Pimlico, most emphatically, should be made to share in the expense, even though the Orioles and Ravens never paid a nickel for what was financed by the lottery.

Why not use the lottery, which is gambling, to fund Pimlico ; Slot machines aren't needed to bring impetus to racing. It's a live show and bettors enjoy being there but Pimlico has become almost depressing. The patrons deserve much better. racing, which also is gambling? It would be a proper and convenient arrangement. Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis, a grand sport, would certainly be willing to make a financial commitment to what would immensely improve his property.

Pimlico management, which opens the gates for 60 days of annual racing, has been accused of having little imagination and promotional sense. Be that as it may. It also owns Laurel Park, where it presents 152 days of the sport. With ownership of Laurel as a convenient option, it would allow for the transfer of dates from Pimlico to work around any rebuilding conflicts. Erecting a grandstand and clubhouse to replace what's there, both with increased capacity, is not exactly a momentous undertaking.

Pimlico reportedly spends about $3 million a year on capital improvements and $6 million on maintenance. However, bottom line, they haven't gotten much to show for the expenditures except a facility lacking style and anything resembling a modicum of class.

Slot machines aren't needed to bring impetus to racing. It's a live show and bettors enjoy being there, taking in the action, but Pimlico has become almost depressing. The patrons deserve much better.

Adequate use of its 140 acres of property has not been a priority. An obvious shortcoming. Garages instead of lots to park cars would maximize the space for visitors. The neighborhood surrounding Pimlico is in critical need of rehabilitation. It has been too long neglected and in some places an eyesore.

Churchill Downs, synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, is antiquated and in a similar urban location in Louisville as Pimlico is in Baltimore. It's far from offering the trappings of a castle, but it has the sentiment of "My Old Kentucky Home," twin spires on the roof, mint juleps and that's about all the fans expect. The Kentucky Derby is the most famous race in America, so Churchill Downs can get away with being a glorified dump.

Pimlico needs to be more aggressive. It must shake the dust from its tired, old past and come into the next century with a renewed spirit and blueprints for a new Pimlico.

In 1938, the esteemed Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, then president of the Maryland Jockey Club, made some controversial changes and defended his actions by saying:

"And so we are moving forward, guided by the will to make Pimlico the best place in America to race horses and the best place in America to see horse races that is by continuing to move forward with the times."

Knock down what's standing there now, which won't take long, and start over. A state-of-the-art racetrack to replace the out-of-fashion, deteriorating plant is necessary. Baltimore and Pimlico both need it.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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