Calling earlier this week from the middle of the Pimlico Race Course, Tiffani Steer says the infield still looks like a bit of a construction site. There’s obviously a considerable amount of work that goes into putting on an event the size of the Preakness, happening Saturday, but this year the Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico and Laurel Park, among other tracks, is reconfiguring both the corporate village and the music festival area.
Steer, vice president of communications and events for Stronach, says the new glass suites in the Preakness Village will offer a more immersive race day. And a high-tech, single stage will make the InfieldFest concert, headlined by Post Malone, 21 Savage, Odesza, Frank Walker and Vice, feel more like Coachella. There’s the added hope that, by opening up better sight lines, adding betting lounges for beginners and making it so the music ends around the start of the race, the beer-swilling denizens of InfieldFest will watch the middle jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
As has become something of an annual tradition, the conversation about the race’s future at Old Hilltop continues to swirl. The first part of a report by the Maryland Stadium Authority found it would cost $300 million to refurbish the grandstands and modernize the track. The second part of the study is due out later this year.
We chatted with Steer about the big changes Stronach is making, what the future holds for Pimlico and how Stronach plans to move forward after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Obviously one of the bigger additions this year is the chalets, and the main stage is being redone. I know the Stronach Group is focused on modernizing horse racing, so how do you think these new additions help achieve that goal?
Tiffani Steer: We know we have to bring things to contemporary entertainment standards. There’s an expectation and a demand from consumers that they get the most out of their entertainment dollars. We know the Preakness is already a legendary event that is one of the most celebrated sporting events in North America, and obviously the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, but we knew that there was more to be done in order to bring that entertainment standard to a place where people want to come back again and again.
We’ve been building over the last several years to really engage the next generation of fans while giving the existing customer a much more elevated experience and a better experience, no matter where they’re sitting when they come to Pimlico. We took a look at the infield and we thought, How could we streamline it? How could we improve the flow and improve the customer experience?
What we did is we went for a single, mega-stage structure, and the reason for the mega-stage is to provide an elevated stage experience, more to the level of what you see at a Coachella or an Electric Daisy Carnival–what typical concert-goers expect now. We’ll bring the stage, bring the new technology–we’re working with Andrew Gumper, who provides a lot of the staging for those concerts that I just mentioned. Really give it a whole new look and feel, and truly give it a premium feel, a true festival feel. So that stage has full LED, it has incredible sound optimization to ensure we’re providing the best sound for the concert-goer and minimizing the impact on any of our horses and jockeys, which is always a huge concern and our number one priority.
That stage has been positioned in such a way to improve flow. We are improving the entrance to the infield by also providing a larger tram. There’s not this bottleneck that some of our customers were experiencing in the past.
And the way we’ve laid out the infield this year, we’ve done that with the eye to providing as much viewing space to the track as possible. There was a lot of people that came to InfieldFest and had no idea there was a horse race going on. We wanted to connect those two worlds and really wanted to bridge that gap. You have to allow people the opportunity to see it live for themselves. It’s something as simple as taking the washrooms that blocked the entire backstretch and repositioning them. Now the entire backstretch is an open space where people can go, and you can access the concessions and actually be able to watch the race.
The other thing we’re looking forward to is the inclusion of these new betting lounges. There has always been access to wagering in the infield. But that wagering was pretty traditional. It was called mutuels, most of the fans had no idea what a mutuel was. We’re providing betting lounges with betting ambassadors. You can go, you can learn how to place a bet really quickly. It can be very intimidating walking up to a mutuel teller and not knowing how to place a bet.
BFB: The company has said a major goal is trying to get more young people interested. Do you think the combination of getting people to see the track and learn how to bet is enough? Or does there need to be something more?
TS: That’s a great question, and one that we’re still trying to figure out ourselves. But I know that anecdotally, if you look at the experiences that we’re doing, having more young people out to the races, if you look at what we did with the Pegasus World Cup where we hosted a party with LIV nightclub, bringing an entirely new base of people to the races, we know that it does work. Once people start to see the horses, it’s very exciting, and there’s something that just gets in you. And while we don’t have years and years of evidence behind us to prove that, what we are hoping is that the evidence will show after Saturday that, not only did we increase the betting handle but increased customer experience, where they enjoy coming to the races and they know that a horse race is on.
The other thing we’re looking at is, with those additional views and the show that we’re running, to provide less lag time between our final closing performer and when the Preakness Stakes goes by. We were seeing a lot of egress, which is fine, a lot are going to leave when they want to leave because they’ve been here all day. We’re hopeful that better access and more betting ambassadors wandering around engaging people, that people will want to stay and see the Preakness for themselves.
BFB: A lot was made about Under Armour not having its corporate tent this year. Is that a big concern for you?
TS: Yeah. Under Armour has always been a fantastic supporter of the Preakness, and we’re going to miss them, there’s no doubt. But we understand that for various business concerns they made a decision that that wasn’t the direction they wanted to go in this year. Hopefully they will be back next year.
But that certainly hasn’t impacted, in any way, the sales in our Preakness Village, the overall sales. Our sales are going very, very well. We’ve got a ton of other sponsors who were willing to come in. We will miss them as a partner, but certainly from a perspective of having an impact on our overall event, it definitely hasn’t.
BFB: Can you tell me who is occupying that space?
One of the other changes that we’ve made for the Preakness Village is the major addition of the Stronach Group chalet, which is a two-story fully glass structure that takes up the footprint of where the Stronach Group was in the past and a little bit of the space where Under Armour was. That’s a fantastic facility, with double-decker viewing platforms that will offer an absolutely premium view of the race.
Immediately beside that is another glass structure for a private party, and they do not wish to be identified.
And then what we did do for the Preakness Village is part of this streamlining of the overall experience. We took a look at how the structures are laid out, and how some of our VIP guests were experiencing the Preakness. The last year there were 23 individual tents that housed our VIP guests. This year what we did is pare that down to six individual glass structures. So they are larger structures, they are suites with hard walls, side by side. Obviously, if you’ve ever been to any other major sporting event, you see suites that are side by side. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to provide a contemporary experience that you see at a stadium with that elevated viewing.
BFB: There’s always this talk every year now, unfortunately, about the future of the race at Pimlico. It sounds like these investments wouldn’t be made if you weren’t considering staying there, right?
TS: To be honest with you, we are all in a wait-and-see pattern. We are waiting for that Maryland Stadium Authority report at the end of the year. Then we’ll be in a much better position to understand the longer-term future. Certainly, for 2019, we will be back, and our focus right now is to commit to an incredible event in 2018.
And the investment that we’re making, it’s not just an investment in Pimlico, but it’s really an investment in the state and the industry in the state. Maryland is an incredible horse racing state, and the thoroughbred industry is a huge contributor to that. And the Stronach Group is really supportive of racing in the state of Maryland. We want it to be amazing, we want it to have a long-term future.
Our president and chairman, Belinda Stronach, obviously strongly believes that there is a huge opportunity. She often says that the sport of thoroughbred horse racing is the last great sports legacy platform to be modernized, and that’s what we’re doing. So we’re taking that into the future and it’s exciting.
Investments have to be made, but you know you need to do that in order to keep the customer coming back and keep people smiling.
BFB: Can you offer a sense of what would have to be in this report for Stronach to say, yes, we will stick with two tracks?
TS: To be honest with you, I wish that answer was just that simple, because it’s not just about what comes out of it for the Stronach Group. We are committed to working with all of the stakeholders to really figuring out what’s best. It truly does not lie in the court of any one of the stakeholders. It has to be an effort where everybody comes together, which for me to speculate on anything like that would not only be irresponsible, but probably completely wrong at the end of the day [laughs]. I do not have a crystal ball.
So we’re just kind of in a waiting pattern, and I say that respectfully, that I just don’t know. But we do know that we are going to work with all of the stakeholders to figure out what we need to do.
BFB: How does the Supreme Court decision paving the way for more states with sports betting figure into your future plans?
TS: That was one of the things that we were keeping a close eye on. As you know, sports wagering has been legal for a number of years in many states, including some of the states in which we operate. So we have a lot of knowledge and history about this.
Overall, we were supportive of the Supreme Court ruling. I think that it opens an interesting opportunity, not just for other sports but of course for horse racing. I think that it could help to enhance the vitality of horse racing. As the owners and operators of some of the premier horse racing facilities in North America, we certainly are positioned to not only be able to offer the physical infrastructure but the back-end systems that can power the future of sports wagering. We’ve got our online site XpressBet.
And we understand that, obviously, the governor currently is supportive of the ruling, that it will be debated at the next session. So of course we’re in a little bit of a wait and see, but we’re supportive of any initiative that includes horse racing, and really, the horse racing industry.
And we really see this as an added amenity for our customers and fans, to go to one of our facilities and have it be horse betting as well as betting other sports, the NBA or whatever it might be. So of course you’re offering an extra reason for our customers to come to your facility. Obviously online applications are going to be important, so we’ll have to look at not only the brick-and-mortar piece of it, but how we continue to modernize and evolve our online applications. We’re excited about it. We’ll obviously wait and see, but we know that if and when the states that we operate in choose to move in that direction, certainly the Stronach Group wants to be at the forefront of providing not only those facilities but those systems that will really power the future of sports wagering.
This interview has been edited and condensed.