Baltimore, MD

Breathing Pimlico to Life - Resurrecting the Site of the Preakness

Susan Kelley

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An American Racehorce at full speedPhoto courtesy of Keith Luke on Unsplash

Anyone who's been to Pimlico racetrack, just a bit north and west of Baltimore's downtown and updated waterfront areas knows the feeling. Rising from the dirt is the sensation that you are in the presence of greatness, or once-greatness, anyway. Even though horses race on Pimlico’s one-mile dirt oval no more than a dozen days each year, images of races past come to mind as clearly as Seabiscuit’s incredible Depression-era racetrack battle with War Admiral. Some of history's greatest horses have rounded this track.

But the track, and its amenities, have seen better days.

Pimlico Race Course first opened to visitors and races in 1870 and has been home of the Preakness Stakes since 1873. It is situated between a lovely and affluent section of the city, Mt. Washington, and a part of town that locals call "up-and-coming," or targeted for revitalization, but deeply in need, called Park Heights.

The track has been sinking into disprepair for quite some time, and its status has been fodder for both discussion and dispute for more than a decade while little has been done. Pimlico owner Belinda Stronach hoped to move the venue entirely to Laurel, MD. While Stronach's primary goal may have been to look at the venue as a business, Baltimoreans, and een Governor Larry Hogan, viewed the Preakness Stakes, and Pimlico itself, as a Baltimore landmark.

Wit that in mind, Hogan permitted a bill to become law that enabled the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $375 million in bonds to refurbish Pimlico and Laurel Park. During the negotiations about Pimlico's future, Stronach agreed to relinquish ownership of the venue's110 acres, valued at $50 million, to the city. In exchange, $155 million in state funds would be allocated for improvements to the Laurel Park, where more races are held annually, and which Stronach had initially viewed as the potential home of the Preakness

The bond money will be replenished by proceeds from the Maryland Lottery and casino, which are already designated to subsidize the racing industry.

Under this plan, Pimlico will be used as an events venue and community hub when not hosting the Preakness. The space can host concerts, festivals, arts events and more - far more than the initial racing for which it was intended. A portion of the land will also be designated for private development, including offices, retail, restaurants, and a handful of private medical offices.

After reviewing proposals submitted by ten independent design teams, state officials chose Baltimore's own Ayers Saint Gross to spearhead the design team for the new home of the Preakness Stakes.

This week, after reviewing proposals from 10 design teams, the state of Maryland selected Baltimore’s Ayers Saint Gross to lead a team that will design a new home for the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, the second leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. Much of the firm's work is dedicated to colleges, universities, and cultural facilities, so landing the home of the Preakness is a natural addition to their portfolio. Part of the Pimlico redesign involves moving the existing track by "rotating" it 30 degrees to accommodate the new design. To facilitate this, the Ayers Saint Gross team brought inTodd Gralla for the project. Gralla's formal title is Director of Equestrian Services at Populos. According to the Populos website, Gralla "has played a key role in programming, master planning, design, facility evaluations, market research and feasibility studies for more than 200 equestrian projects around the globe."

Some critics lament using close to $400 million in state funds—despite the fact that most of the money is coming from revenue already earmarked for the state horse racing industry— for what they see as a dying sport, despite its long tradition.

Still, reviving Pimlico keeps the championship event of Preakness in Baltimore, a tradition that started two years prior to the first Kentucky Derby, in May,1873. And for the surrounding community, the redevelopment offers an opportunity to make a serious investment in what is now a low-income, high-crime area that has seen little direct economic benefit from the approximaltely $30 million or so that Preakness generates for the Baltimore area each year. By making use of Pimlico for 10 months of the year rather than a long weekend, organizers hope to rejuvenate the surrounding area with a steadier, more reliable income stream and the development of more consistent retail and dining throughout the depressed neighborhoods.

For a city in need of some glamour, revitalization, and yet steeped in tradition and committed to excellence, keeping both the Preakness and Pimlico are welcome news.

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Susan is a runner, avid traveler, mom of three grown children, and a newly-transplanted Baltimorean who follows tech trends, especially at the intersection of health and the public good. Sound intriguing? It is. Often, technology is at odds with the "earthy-crunchy," but sometimes, it is a real boost. Susan is an avowed supporter of women's and human rights, so that situates well here.

Baltimore, MD
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