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Culture & Artsby Fern Shen7:18 amMay 20, 20240

Sparse crowds as the Preakness races toward an uncertain future

With the state betting $400 million that a Pimlico makeover will make the racetrack profitable, this was the scene at Baltimore’s annual thoroughbred event

Above: Muddy conditions at the Pimlico Race Course for the 149th running of the Preakness Stakes, whose attendance was down again this year. (Fern Shen)

As always, there was mud.

And men clad in Easter-egg-colored suits.

And women with fascinators affixed to one side of their head. (Lt. Governor Aruna Miller confessed she lost confidence in hers when she was about to be photographed and took it off.)

And, of course, there were horses at the 149th Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown, held on Saturday at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

But one thing was missing compared to previous years:

A big, revved-up crowd.

Preakness Saturday attendance every year from 2011 to 2019 exceeded 100,000.

In 2023, the announced number was 46,999, with a combined 65,000 attending Friday and Saturday events.

Attendance at the two-day event was down to 63,423 this year, according to officials, who did not provide the figure for Saturday alone.

“Where are the people?” asked Mark Brosnan, standing at the rail with Elayne Cohen ahead of a mid-afternoon turf race.

The couple was outside one of the corporate suites, gazing across the grassy inner track and the mucky outer track to the concourse and grandstand area, where many seats were empty and the food concessions had barely any lines.

Mark Brosnan and Elayne Cohen wait for the start of one of the turf races run ahead of the final Preakness Stakes race. (Fern Shen)

Mark Brosnan and Elayne Cohen wait for the start of one of the turf races run ahead of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. (Fern Shen)

The eerie absence of buzz – plus the fact that the storied-but-dilapidated facility is set to undergo demolition next year as part of a $400 million state bailout deal – was weighing on the Montgomery County resident and his Baltimore County companion.

“Is this really the last year they run the race here before that happens?” he asked, wincing. “It is a funky old place! But, I don’t know, I guess they do need to modernize.”

Even more problematic than outdated facilities is that – thanks to online betting – no one needs to come to racetracks anymore to place a bet on a thoroughbred.

“Online betting is killing places like this,” said Brosnan, who owns two retired racehorses and has ridden them at Pimlico as part of charity events.

“People can stay home and still bet and watch it on TV. But they miss all this – the sight of it, being here!” he exclaimed, gesturing at the scene.

Horses pound down the grass track at Pimlico Saturday as part of Preakness weekend. (Fern Shen)

Horses pound down the grass track at Pimlico as part of Preakness weekend. (Fern Shen)

“Go, go, GO!”

Pretty soon, though, there was a scene.

The gate opened, and in the next instant horses were thundering past in a blur, churning through the dirt and grass like four-legged speedboats.

People who moments earlier had been inside the building slurping oysters, sipping cocktails and checking their cellphones raced outside, a few of them screaming “go, go, GO!”

“It’s over so fast,” Cohen said wistfully, as the horses and riders disappeared around the bend. “Blink and it’s over.”

“You can feel the ground shaking when they go by,” she added, warning a novice to stay back ahead of a chaser vehicle zipping by, spraying more mud toward the crowd .

Even the sight of a crew of workers wielding heavy tamping tools in the grass track delighted this couple.

“See that, they’re replacing the divots,” Brosnan murmured.

There was even more of a scene later in the day when the big final race ended with a surprise.

The crowd roared when it became clear that the favorite, Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan, had just been beaten by Seize the Grey, a horse belonging to thousands of people through a new ownership model.

Seize the Grey’s win was not only unexpected, but it gave those looking for reasons to be optimistic about horse racing a decent talking point. Perhaps this unique platform, MyRacehorse, could inject new life into the sport, and places like Pimlico?

CEO Belinda Stronach, Mayor Brandon Scott and Governor Wes Moore at the Winner's Circle as Preakness winner Seize the Grey enters the Winner's Circle. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Stronach Group CEO Belinda Stronach, Mayor Brandon Scott and Governor Wes Moore stand at the Winner’s Circle as Preakness winner Seize the Grey ambles past photographers. BELOW: Preakness participants gingerly make their way through the Pimlico mud. (Fern Shen)

Moving almost in formation, Preakness participants make their way through the Pimlico mud. (Fern Shen)

State-created Nonprofit

So far, efforts to reverse the plummeting popularity of the sport in general, and Pimlico in particular, have proven elusive amid challenges that include horse deaths, doping scandals and calls for horse racing to be banned altogether.

The Maryland General Assembly has been perennially debating the wisdom of subsidizing the sprawling race course, which first opened in 1870.

Pimlico’s owner, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, has tried but failed to turn a profit by attracting a younger crowd and booking Grammy-award winning performers to play to the Preakness infield festival crowd.

Earlier this year, the company finally gave up, ceding control to Maryland.

Under legislation approved last week by Governor Wes Moore and the Board of Public Works, a state-created nonprofit will buy crumbling Pimlico from Stronach for $1, and then raze and rebuild it with the surrounding neighborhood as a profit-sharing partner.

But before the community gets its share under the complex deal, the state is obligated to pay $3 million annually to Stronach for rights to the Preakness, plus 2% of betting proceeds from the race – estimated at another $2 million.

The state will also use some of the $400 million public outlay to build a separate horse training facility at one of several proposed sites in the Maryland suburbs. There was talk of  an event space that could hold proms and other large parties, and housing for track workers.

During Pimlico’s reconstruction, the 2026 Preakness will be run at Laurel Park, also owned by Stronach. The consolidation plan then calls for the Anne Arundel County track to permanently close.

Empty seats at midday Saturday. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Amid intermittent showers, empty seats at midday on Saturday. BELOW: Governor Wes Moore clasps hands with Baltimore Sun co-owner and conservative columnist Armstrong Williams. (Fern Shen)

Maryland Gov. Moore clasps hands with Baltimore Sun co-owner Armstrong Williams. (Fern Shen)

Tater Tots with Caviar

On Saturday, Moore, Belinda Stronach, the company’s CEO ,and others involved in brokering the deal gathered in the two-story glass-walled “1/ST Chalet” at the finish line to watch the race along with local celebrities.

In this exclusive zone, where the Black-eyed Susan cocktails were flowing and the tater tots were infused with caviar, one could mingle with, among others:

A Baltimore Ravens quarterback (Lamar Jackson in a salmon pink jacket), a Baltimore Sun co-owner and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas confidant (Armstrong Williams in black-and-white stripes) and recent mayoral primary winner Brandon Scott and his fiancée Hana Pugh (both sporting coordinated lemon yellow attire.)

Here, no doubts were expressed about the state bailout. The internet was the place to go for cynical takes on the reason why Preakness crowds have been so anemic and whether a $400 million public-private makeover could address the problem.

Commentary on

Commentary on “X “about the future of the Preakness and Pimlico Race Course.

Animal Abuse Protesters

Also undetectable in this bubble was any reference to the debate over the sport’s treatment of horses and calls by some for it to be abolished. An estimated 2,000 horses die each year from racing-related injuries, according to Horseracing Wrongs.

Outside the race course perimeter on Northern Parkway, dozens of protesters held up signs that said “Horse Racing is Animal Abuse,” and “Say neigh to horse abuse.”

Inside and occupying a central place in the VIP venue was the man the Washington Post  described as “the sport’s most decorated trainer and its most villainous.”

Bob Baffert remains suspended by Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, stemming from the 2021 failed drug test of a horse he trained, Medina Spirit, whose apparent victory in that year’s Derby was subsequently nullified.

Baffert may be on the bad list in Kentucky, but he was treated like racing royalty in Baltimore on Saturday, instantly recognizable by his trademark snow-white hair and blue-tinted glasses.

Baltimore state delegate Marolon Amprey, record producer Kevin Liles and trainer Bob Baffert pose for a photo at the Preakness. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Baltimore State Delegate Marlon Amprey (D, 40th), record producer Kevin Liles and trainer Bob Baffert pose for a photo. BELOW: On Northern Parkway, animal rights protesters call for an end to horse racing. (Fern Shen)

On Northern Parkway, animal rights protesters call for an end to horse racing. (Fern Shen)

Last year, Baffert’s National Treasure won the Preakness, but another horse he trained, Havnameltdown, fell in an earlier race and had to be euthanized on the track.

At this year’s Preakness, the results were decidedly mixed for the 71-year-old.

No new controversies, but Muth, one of the two Baffert-trained horses in this year’s Preakness, was scratched due to a fever.

His other horse, Imagination, finished seventh in a field of eight.

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