'Pimlico Plus' Concerns: Roving Preakness, Future Of Turf Racing, Synthetic Readiness

Pimlico Race Course | Horsephotos

'The Week in Review', by T.D. Thornton

A few items that stand out after sifting through Friday's “Pimlico Plus” report issued by the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority (MTROA). The ambitious $400-million plan, which is subject to legislative approval, re-imagines the state's racing consolidated at one publicly funded track in Baltimore, the closure of Laurel Park, the construction of a new training facility in the state, and 1/ST Racing and Gaming ceding control of day-to-day Maryland racing to a non-profit entity.

Triple Crown traditionalists who are already in a tizzy about the GI Belmont S. needing to relocate to Saratoga Race Course and change its distance for 2024 because of the complete overhaul of Belmont Park had better brace for a radically nomadic renewal the sport's signature series in 2025.

If the proposed re-imagining of Pimlico Race Course gets green-lighted by the Maryland legislature as per the MTROA's desired timetable, and if the New York Racing Association (NYRA) confirms the expected Belmont-at-Saratoga festival again for next year, the 2025 series of spring Classics could feature the GI Kentucky Derby run per usual at Churchill Downs, followed by the GI Preakness S. at Laurel Park (the placeholder host during Pimlico's reconstruction), and the Belmont S. at Saratoga for the second season in a row (at the truncated distance of 10 furlongs because NYRA doesn't want to start what is traditionally a 12-furlong race on the Spa's far turn).

Even assuming that a modernized Belmont Park is ready to take back its namesake stakes in 2026, the Maryland time frame still has Pimlico's construction ongoing through at least that year, meaning the earliest return to Triple Crown normalcy, in terms of host tracks and race distances, could be 2027.

In addition, the 150th running of the Preakness will occur in 2025, but the festivities will likely be muted because of the temporary move. The anniversary will certainly be recognized, but don't expect a Preakness-at-Laurel celebration to have the same cachet Churchill will enjoy this year when it unveils long-planned facility upgrades and partners with the city of Louisville for an extended Derby 150 bash. It will be tough for whoever controls the rights to the Preakness to take advantage of the historical hoopla associated with its big anniversary if the race gets moved to temporary digs 28 miles south of Baltimore.

The Preakness is only one day, but the turf racing season in Maryland usually lasts for more than six months. Consolidating racing at Pimlico will mean limiting grass racing to one smaller course that won't get much of a break during the sweltering summer months.

    When Laurel's expanded turf course opened in 2005, it was billed as a game-changer for Maryland racing, and it has proven to be an investment that paid off handsomely in terms of delivering more grass opportunities, boosting field sizes and generating handle.

While Pimlico's existing (and proposed new) turf course is seven furlongs in circumference, roughly the same as Laurel's (seven furlongs and 254 feet), the key difference is width–Pimlico's existing/proposed width will remain at 70 feet according to the MTROA report, while Laurel's is a generous 142 feet wide, allowing for the ability to move portable rails out 17, 35, 53, 70 and 87 feet to provide six different running lanes.

Just last month, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) issued a press release that underscored how the “Laurel turf is integral not only to the Maryland racing product but the overall mid-Atlantic racing product.”

According to the MTHA's count, in 2023 Laurel ran 273 turf races, the most since 2019 and the highest number among all racetracks in the mid-Atlantic region. Average field size for the course was 9.2 horses per race over six-plus months of usage, while the average field size for dirt races at Laurel between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 was only 6.8.

Pimlico, which conducted short meets in May/June and September 2023, ran 72 grass races, giving Maryland access to 345 in-state turf events. But the actual number of turf races at Pimlico isn't as important as the break its meets afford Laurel's course, which had shown signs of strain in previous years when Pimlico didn't run during the summer.

Pimlico's ability to carry on Maryland's reputation as a strong grass-racing state is dubious given the course's size and a calendar that will give it a summer break only when the Timonium fair is in session at the end of August and early September.

The turf course at Colonial Downs is 180 feet wide and 180 miles south of Pimlico. Over the course of a 27-date 2023 summer meet, the Virginia track ran 213 turf races, the second-highest in the region, according to the MTHA's numbers.

To Maryland, Colonial looms as a horse-siphoning threat in both the short term (for the several years Laurel will race almost non-stop while Pimlico gets rebuilt) and over the long term, when Pimlico takes over with a turf course that isn't as expansive or versatile as the one it's replacing.

Whether Pimlico's main track and turf course remain in their existing locations or get rotated to better fit within the redesigned property's footprint (both options are outlined by the MTROA), one of the report's “Guiding Principles” states that “The dirt track shall be engineered to be 'synthetic-ready' allowing the quick and economical transition from dirt cushion to a synthetic cushion.” The proposed new training facility is also supposed to have this “synthetic ready” infrastructure in place.

Wanting both Pimlico and Maryland's new training center to have the option of switching over from dirt to a synthetic surface in the future seems to be a good idea from a planning perspective, because it's unknown at this point if a federal mandate requiring synthetics might be in the pipeline from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act Authority. But claiming that having such infrastructure is going to position Maryland to be able to “quickly and economically” pivot from one surface to the other understates the difficulty of taking on this sort of after-the-fact conversion.

More than two decades of synthetic-surface history in North America has shown that making a switch is, by its very nature, neither fast nor cheap.

When Woodbine Racetrack changed from Polytrack to Tapeta during the winter of 2015-16, the work took three months, was purposely scheduled for the offseason, and had to include a settling-in period before horses were allowed on it. Turfway Park made the same surface switch in 2020, but had the luxury of an April-to-November time window between race meets to get the project done properly. To a certain degree, both those tracks were “synthetic ready” because they were switching from Polytrack to Tapeta. The cost for each project was measured in seven digits.

Can you imagine if “Pimlico Plus” reopened in 2027 with a dirt surface, and at some point soon after that the entity running the operation decided Maryland's only racing venue needed to cease racing for a while in order to switch over to synthetic?

By all means, build the base and its infrastructure to the best possible standards with a focus on safety. But if a synthetic surface is in Pimlico's future, decide on that right from the outset without making it seem like a subsequent change from dirt could realistically be “quickly and economically” accomplished.

When Laurel closed for five months in 2021 to replace its main dirt track with an entirely new dirt surface, Maryland racing had Pimlico to fall back on so racing on the circuit wouldn't go dark. If Pimlico becomes the state's sole Thoroughbred track, there will be no Plan B for Maryland racing if it needs to repair or switch surfaces.

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