Letter from Baltimore: Preserving the Preakness

Mine that Bird may make history on May 16, but the historic track where he will run might not survive until next year.

The Member’s Club at Pimlico Race track in the 1950s

Moments ago, it was announced  that Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird will, in fact, run the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on May 16. Thus the stage is set for another dramatic race and potential upset by this Canadian gelding. Pimlico Race Track, home of the Preakness, has witnessed many a great showdown since it first opened in 1870, not the least of which was the famous 1938 standoff between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. The event in two weeks may well go down in history, but not just for the horses that take to the dirt track. On the eve of its 140th anniversary, the historic Pimlico may be razed to make way for a shopping mall.

The track’s owner, Magna Entertainment, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and, so far, the top bid on the 116-acre site (located less than 8 miles from downtown) is a local developer named Carl Verstandig. His company, America’s Realty LLC , is known for investing in retail projects for downtrodden urban neighborhoods. Pimlico sits in the center of a community bearing its name that has struggled over the years with crime and declining housing values. Verstandig wants to turn the site into a shopping mall. “What makes us unique is that we don’t have any interest at all in the Preakness as part of the acquisition,” he told the Baltimore Sun.

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To be fair, the history of the Preakness Stakes, while storied, lacks the same refinement as its Triple Crown cousins. The Preakness has always been the rowdier of the gatherings, where dainty silver cups of mint-laden bourbon are replaced with large silver kegs of cheap beer. The infield is notorious for drunken debauchery. No fancy hats here; you’re more likely to see tank tops and sunburned noses. (This year, the Preakness staff announced plans to try and limit outside liquor consumption on the infield. Good luck.)

And yet there is something wonderful about the everyman quality of horse racing in Baltimore. Like much of the city, the Preakness retains a kind of working-class spirit, the same spirit that makes it so thrilling to watch a 50-1 shot purchased for $9,500 come out of nowhere and upset the establishment. The odds aren’t on horses like Mine That Bird, or neighborhoods like Pimlico. Here’s hoping someone comes from behind to save the Preakness and the track that has been its home.

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