BALTIMORE -- Nearly 6,700 grandstand seats at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course are not safe, an engineering firm has determined, meaning roughly 18 percent of the historic track's seating capacity will be cordoned-off when it hosts one of America's premier horse races next month.
Some city lawmakers assert that the looming closure of the northern grandstand adjacent to the clubhouse — the oldest section of seating with a capacity of 6,670 — illustrates how the Canada-based development company that owns and operates the track has systematically routed renovation cash away from the host of the Preakness Stakes. The storied race is the second-leg of the Triple Crown.
"This announcement underscores the core issue of renovation funding being intentionally steered away from Pimlico to help manufacture a crisis," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.
Pimlico owner The Stronach Group says its hands are tied: An engineering firm has determined that the northern grandstand with those 6,670 seats can't sustain that level of load bearing weight any longer. The announcement about the closure of the 125-year-old section of seating was made by the Maryland Jockey Club, a state sporting organization that called the closure a "difficult decision."
It's the latest chapter in a meandering saga pitting Stronach against Baltimore authorities desperately trying to hold onto the middle jewel of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. Thousands of racing fans will flock to Pimlico on May 18 for the 144th running of the Preakness.
There's been no shortage of recent drama ratcheting up the dispute.
Most recently, a bill failed to pass in Maryland that would have allowed The Stronach Group to use state bonds for improvements at Laurel Park and Bowie Training Center, if it redeveloped the Pimlico Race Course. Baltimore's House delegation opposed the move over concern about the company moving the Preakness out of the city where it was first run in 1873.
And last month, a lawsuit filed by Baltimore's mayor, the City Council and three residents claimed Stronach was "openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating."
Under state law, the Preakness Stakes can be moved to another track in Maryland "only as a result of a disaster or emergency." Yet Stronach has made it abundantly clear it would like to move the race out of the city. Over the years, it has spent much of its state-subsidized renovation funds on boosting its newer track in Laurel, not the increasingly dilapidated Pimlico.
The announcement about safety concerns about Pimlico's rickety grandstands is hardly out of the blue. A report issued late last year by the Maryland Stadium Authority recommended demolishing all existing structures at the historic track, asserting that the rundown condition of the aging Baltimore track presents challenges threatening the "continued existence and the success of the Preakness Stakes." It called for the track to be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of $424 million.
According to the track's website, the section of grandstands to be shut down represents some 47% of the roughly 14,000 seats in Pimlico's clubhouse, main grandstand, old grandstand and sports palace and make up nearly 18% of the overall seating capacity for some 38,000 patrons. Another 82,000 people can cheer for their racing favorite in the standing room and infield areas.
The closure will be in effect for the entire Pimlico spring meeting, which includes the Preakness May 18. Tickets sold in the affected section for the Preakness can be traded in at face value for similar seating elsewhere.
A Stronach representative was due to speak about the decision Monday but officials ended up scrapping that news conference. A company official did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday.
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