A Memorable Preakness Stakes Brings Thoughts on Its Past, Present, and Future

Events / Travel
Fans watch a turf race on Preakness Stakes day from a VIP hospitality terrace. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I went down to Old Hilltop this year because I was worried this might be the last Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. We know now that it is not. It has been given a one-year reprieve. But it is a near certainty that the race will be moved 25 miles to Laurel Park as early as 2021. The only obstacle standing in the way of The Stronach Group, the owner of both racetracks, is a lawsuit on behalf of the city of Baltimore looking to turn the Pimlico facility over to the city through condemnation, so that the city might be able to find a solution to rehabilitate America’s second-oldest racetrack and keep it in the neighborhood it has stood in since 1870. That legal battle is an uphill one, and in the meantime The Stronach Group has invested little to no money in upkeep on the Pimlico facility, heightening calls for the race to be moved somewhere more suitable for crowds of over 130,000 people.

Entertainment at the Preakness infield. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I’ve been to several runnings of the Preakness, and I’ve written about it many times. I’ve sometimes been hard on the event, especially when describing the bedlam that takes place each year in the racetrack’s infield, where college students throw wild parties in the mud and electronic dance music pulsates from concert stages, and drunkeness leads to fistfights and debauchery by day’s end. However, despite my faint-of-heart reaction each year to the insanity of the infield (which, we must not forget, is the sole reason why a large number of those tens of thousands of attendees show up), I have also been a staunch defender of the track itself. I’ve written about how Pimlico’s shabbiness is its own kind of charm, how I love being in old racetracks the same way I love bowling alleys and dive bars. I’ve written about how peeling paint and creaking wood just adds to the uniqueness of the experience for me, a reminder that I am partaking in a tradition far older than nearly any other American sport, and one that is a part of the American culture in ways most of us don’t even realize. I’ve had a knee-jerk reaction to those who complain of Pimlico’s run-down feeling, often writing such critiques off as bourgeois and stuck up, part of some larger move towards the shopping mall-ification of America, where we bulldoze our past and erect in its place these brand new cookie-cutter big boxes, making every community from coast to coast feel exactly the same.

But even I had to acknowledge this year that Pimlico is in rough shape. Perhaps it always was, and I blinded myself to it. But three hours into the races on Saturday the plumbing in an entire section of Pimlico failed, sending fans out behind the racetrack into the grandstand parking lots where portable restrooms were set up for them to use. And from the infield looking onto the grandstand, it was clear that half the facility was now boarded up, the seating area deemed unfit for bearing the weight of the attendees. It’s a bad enough inconvenience on a normal racing day (of which Pimlico is down to only 12 each year), but on Preakness day, when the crowds are enormous, it is downright dangerous.

A great vantage point. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I didn’t feel any such way, however, from my seat at the Turfside Terrace in the infield, where a big white tent shielded me from the blistering sun and walls behind us did their best to protect us from the droning bass of Diplo on the infield stage. In our tent we were served a spread of fine foods, as much as we could bear to eat, and given front-row seats to the horses on the track. I mingled there with celebrities like Britt McHenry and Jay Gruden, and met fascinating people who were attending their first-ever horse race. To those rare ducks whose first experience at a racetrack was in the Turfside Terrace’s high-end first-class accomodations, they were bowled over impressed. They said they wanted to come back. But to each person after person that I met in Turfside Terrace who told me they had never been to the races before and they were in love, I warned them – it’s not like this every day. This is an incredibly unique experience.

In the early days of Pimlico, the infield was exactly like this. The upper-crust of horse racing fans held extravagant picnics on the grounds, taking in the races with champagne and caviar. Back then the infield was raised, hence the nickname “Old Hilltop,” so that the rich folks in the center could see the entire race from a high vantage point. The $2 fans on the other side of the track, however, complained bitterly year after year that the hill obstructed their view of the race. When the horses rounded the turn into the backstretch, they disappeared from the view of anyone not sitting on top of the hill. But for years the Maryland Jockey Club said that the cost of removing the hill was too great, or that it would cause damage to the facilities or to the water runoff. By 1937, the track relented. Alfred Vanderbilt invested in the track and wanted to make improvements, and at the top of his list was removing the hill. Once he snapped his fingers, excavation started at once, leaving many to speculate that removal of the hill was always possible, just wasn’t something the track’s owners wanted. They perhaps preferred to cater to the champagne-sippers on the hill than the lunch-pail race fans. Back then, too, there were calls to move the Preakness to Laurel Park. As early as 1950 there were legal battles over relocating the race versus investing in fixing up Pimlico. In years past, the Pimlico-defenders always won, from getting the track to tear down the hill to constructing a modern grandstand to putting in modernized facilities for horsemen. The Maryland Jockey Club, through it all, kept one foot in Pimlico and one foot out, looking to bail as soon as they could. Here, some century and a half later, they may finally get their chance in 2020, the will to defend Pimlico long ago snuffed out.

A Preakness handicapping conference. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

I certainly appreciate the amenities of the Turfside Terrace, I won’t lie. But before the big race ran on Saturday I bailed on the sultan’s tent, where men in expensive suits sat perched in high chairs getting their shoes shined while they smoked cigars, and made my way across the track onto the main apron, where I could watch the Preakness with horse racing’s devoted rabble. It was they who put up with overpriced hot dogs and busted plumbing, crowded hallways and long lines at the windows. These were the descendents of those Pimlico fans who fought so hard to tear down the hill 80 years ago. These were my true people. The ones who come to the races year in and year out, in good weather and bad, who love the sport and will endure whatever indignities they must in order to watch a 3 year old Classic Grade 1 stakes race up close.

Consider if you will that there was no Triple Crown possibility this year – something we are often told is a death knell for the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, who need Triple Crown buzz to bring out the fans. This year broke records for attendance and handle over the weekend, despite none of the top four finishers from the Kentucky Derby even being entered in the Preakness. That was due in no small part to the Pimlico faithful, who come year after year, who aren’t turned off by the crowds and the insane dilapidation of the facilities, which seem to get worse with each passing year. Yes, it is true that we would all be more comfortable at Laurel Park, where The Stronach Group has invested hundreds of millions of dollars of Maryland taxpayer subsidies. And it appears that soon enough that’s where we will have to go to see the Preakness. And we’ll likely be happier because of it. And it’s also likely that the city of Baltimore will find some better use for the enormous amount of land Pimlico sits on than 12 days of horse racing each year.

But even though it may be the right move, it occurs to me that horse racing fans will go wherever the horses are, cash in hand ready to thrust through the windows. Racing fans don’t need to be pampered. But they deserve to be. The fans of this sport don’t deserve the busted pipes of Pimlico. They deserve much more. They deserve unlimited crab cakes and complimentary shoe shines and cigars. Just like in 1938, they didn’t deserve that big hill blocking their view. We won that battle. And we kept the Preakness in Baltimore, beating back every attempt to move it for the next eighty years. My only hope is that if they do move the race to Laurel, that they remember us $2 bettors, and give us a slice of that good life at the new track and not just save it for the rich and famous. After all, if you can’t handle horse racing at its shabbiest, you don’t deserve it when it is most pristine.

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