BALTIMORE – Ray Edwards is at Pimlico counting the days before his next trip to West Virginia’s Charles Town race track.
It’s not the $400 he won there last time that’s making him yearn for the hills – it’s the spiffy facilities and lively atmosphere.
“They used to be a junk. Now we’re the junk,” said Edwards, a retired Baltimore liquor distributor who has gambled at Pimlico for 48 years.
A recent lovely spring Saturday at Pimlico revealed small crowds and declining facilities, two reasons race fans say they’re going elsewhere to bet on thoroughbreds.
Edwards said he’s almost sick of visiting Maryland’s premiere race track, the second-oldest venue in the country, and he voted for Gov. Robert Ehrlich so he could bring in slot machines, another of Edwards’ passions, to revitalize the track he used to love.
Pimlico is renowned for being the home of the Preakness Stakes, one of three races that combined are the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. It’s also where the ugly duckling horse Seabiscuit raced War Admiral in a 1938 sprint retold in a recent best-selling book, PBS documentary and upcoming movie.
When the race is recreated on film this summer, Santa Anita in California, another track owned by Pimlico’s parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp., will play the role of the Baltimore track.
Many fear the 132-year-old track’s history has outpaced its domain. Some race fans, lawmakers and city residents said Pimlico could really lose the Preakness to another Magna track if attendance continues to dwindle and the track is not renovated.
The Triple Crown is the most prestigious trio of horse races in the world, attracting international attention as thoroughbreds compete to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes over a five-week stretch from the first Saturday in May to early June.
“The only way the Preakness would leave, would be if racing at Pimlico is no longer profitable,” said track Executive Vice President Tim Capps.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich is among many concerned about the race and the sport.
“We have to keep the Preakness in Maryland,” Ehrlich said, later adding, “People wouldn’t be worried about it if there wasn’t some concern it could happen.”
Ehrlich campaigned on using slot machine revenues to save Maryland horse racing and close the state’s deficit.
He was wary when the House of Delegates rejected his plan to legalize 11,500 slot machines at four tracks, including 3,500 at Pimlico.
“I’m concerned obviously, given the demise of the slots bill, that our fields will continue to be small, that cheaper horses will continue to run, that trainers will take better horses where the money is, in the surrounding states,” Ehrlich said.
Track regulars and officials said Pimlico is losing its lore as years have gone without a revitalization.
“Even industry reps will tell you the track’s in disrepair,” said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Track lobbyist Alan Rifkin told the Senate Finance Committee that when they hold the Preakness, scheduled to run Saturday, May 17, audience members complain “chapter and verse” about the decrepit facility.
Renovating the track would spur immediate results, Capps said.
He points to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and asks where baseball’s Orioles would be without the state-sponsored stadium that increased attendance by 1 million in a season in 1992.
“Just another small-market team,” Capps answers. “I’m not saying the state should build a track, but . . . that is what facilities can do for a sporting event.”
He compared Maryland racing’s decline to the Bethlehem Steel mill at Sparrows Point in East Baltimore. After standing as one of the world’s best steel companies for more than 100 years, it invested $600 million in renovating the plant, then bankrupted and left thousands without work.
If the slots plan had passed, the track would have received millions in slots revenues each year and a mandate to spend $150 million to renovate Pimlico and build a parlor for the machines.
Busch, who masterminded the failure of Ehrlich’s slots plan, would have preferred more effort from Pimlico’s ownership team before slots were an issue.
“Horse racing was once more popular than Major League Baseball,” Busch charged. “What has horse racing done to promote itself?”
State money isn’t coming to Pimlico without slot machines, Capps says.
With the state facing billion-dollar deficits over the next few years, he says subsidizing horse racing “doesn’t make sense.”
“Historic reasons are the only justification for funding horse racing,” said agricultural economist Wesley Musser of the University of Maryland.
Although almost all parties believe slots will pass next year, Busch said he doesn’t want owners to receive slots at more than one facility. If that’s followed, there’s no sure bet Pimlico will be on the table, because its parent companies also own a track in Laurel that Ehrlich slated for slots.
The park’s not the only thing that needs help. Surrounding roads need massive improvement – $66 million worth according to Baltimore officials – to facilitate the crowds that only come once a year for the Preakness.
Ehrlich disputed the city’s numbers and said, “Traffic would be a good thing,” because not enough people come to create traffic jams.
“No one takes a date to the track (Pimlico),” Ehrlich said.
While the Kentucky Derby’s home at Churchill Downs is horse racing’s beauty, Gov. Robert Ehrlich calls Pimlico “almost run down.”
Pimlico’s decline is also clear at the ticket booths. While more than 13,000 people attended Churchill’s opener last year, only about 6,000 made it to Pimlico’s this spring.
“No money’s being spent,” Edwards said, during his recent Pimlico visit.
A broken window greets reporters exiting the elevator toward the press box. Sun-cracked concrete surrounds quiet picnic tables where children play. A rusted fence topped with barbed wire separates the sprinting thoroughbreds from a parking lot in ruins.
“Nothing’s being kept up. . . . Now we’re down where you can hardly get a decent hot dog, can’t get anything,” Edwards said.
Slot machines would fix it, he argues, and if they don’t win approval the track will continue to decline.
The governor agrees. – 30 – CNS-5-1-03