A little more than a month before it hosts the Preakness Stakes, the Maryland Jockey Club announced it will decommission nearly 7,000 seats in a century-old grandstand after an engineering firm concluded the structure could no longer support a crowd of that size.
Maryland Jockey Club, which is owned by The Stronach Group, brought on Baltimore-based Faisant Associates to assess the Concourse Reserved section, situated near the top of the stretch and to the north of the more modern, glass-enclosed clubhouse. They found “significant deterioration” in the stands.
The closure will cover the entire Pimlico meet, including the two biggest draws on the local racing calendar, the Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan Day.
“It is deeply disappointing for us and the affected ticket-holders that at a peak moment in time when we generate the most amount of income for the industry, for our company and for all stakeholders, and when we are poised to welcome racing fans to Preakness, we have to de-commission 6,670 seats,” Bill Hecht, CEO of U.S. Real Estate for The Stronach Group, said in a statement. “As the safety and security is paramount to our guests and employees, this position to forego income should in no way be interpreted as anything other than that.”
In response to emailed questions from Baltimore Fishbowl, Hecht said water and cold temperatures place the useful lifespan of an open-air outdoor sports facility at roughly three or four decades.
“The structure needs to be replaced not repaired, and that’s a very costly proposition given the lack of integrity in concrete and other supportive structures,” he said. “To be clear, the structure is over 100 years old and the building has always been open to the weather given it was never enclosed nor air-conditioned.”
Maryland Jockey Club is offering ticket-holders the opportunity to trade for new seats without any additional cost until May 1. Hecht told Baltimore Fishbowl the company has already been able to relocate 20 percent of the people who bought grandstand tickets.
Hecht also said the Maryland Jockey Club is making other repairs at Pimlico based on the findings of the report, which will not be released.
“We are still reviewing the findings, but we wanted to get this acute information out as soon as possible so that people who have previously purchased grandstand tickets can make alternative arrangements,” he said.
According to Phase One of a Maryland Stadium Authority report on Pimlico, a timber-and-steel grandstand was built in 1894 after the original burned down. It is believed a portion of that 19th-century structure still stands.
Conducted by the stadium architecture firm Populous, the 2017 study suggested renovating the old grandstand with a new entrance and overhauled concourse.
The move to cordon off the oldest part of the track comes after the latest go-round over the fate of the Preakness and Pimlico Race Course itself. Stronach has said it only makes sense to operate one track in Maryland, and the company would prefer to put its resources into its other property, Laurel Park, where upgrades have been made in recent years.
Baltimore leaders balked at the idea of losing an event that draws crowds exceeding 100,000 people, instead throwing support behind a $424 million plan drawn up by the Maryland Stadium Authority to build a new Pimlico grandstand that would double as community space, as well as commercial and retail development.
State law requires the Preakness to be run at Pimlico except in the event of an emergency.
During the Maryland General Assembly, Stronach backed a bill authorizing the Maryland Economic Development Corporation to issue bonds to turn Laurel Park into a “super track”–and presumably the home of the Preakness–and a training track in Bowie into a state-of-the-art facility.
After a back-and-forth that included the city suing Stronach to keep the race, the bill was effectively killed near the end of the legislative session when the city’s House delegation voted against the proposal.
According to WMAR’s Brian Kuebler, Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the timing of the announcement raises questions. Stronach dismissed those as “completely off base.”
Acting #Baltimore Mayor @prezjackyoung says he finds the timing curious after the Stronach Group’s bill which would allow them to use state bonds to invest in Laurel was defeated in Annapolis. He says he has questions. Stronach calls that sentiment “completely off base.” pic.twitter.com/b0S591u4Tz
— Brian Kuebler (@BrianKuebler_) April 15, 2019
Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to Young’s office for additional comment.