The Starting Gate
Baltimore magazine|May 2021
At long last, plans are underway for a new “Home of the Preakness.”
Corey McLaughlin

April Smith might not exactly fit the stereotypical image of a cigar-chomping, visor-wearing weekday horse race bettor. “I’m 5-foot-2, 106 pounds, and a woman of a certain age,” she says. (Her twin sister won’t allow her to reveal the precise number.) But on the days the Ruxton resident leaves her house to visit Pimlico Race Course, she is as much a regular as anyone else at the track. “I go down there to bet,” she says.

People always ask why. “‘Oh, that’s a terrible neighborhood,’ they tell me,” Smith says of Park Heights, where Pimlico—the Home of the Preakness, as the dilapidated signs say outside—is located. First, she says, there’s not much to worry about on the 110acre, largely desolate plot of land. Outside of Preakness week, when traffic backs up on I-83 and neighbors look to make money selling parking spots, afternoons at the track tend to be pretty sleepy. At most, a few dozen bettors might stroll across the linoleum floor in the mid-century-modern clubhouse, put down money at a teller’s window, and watch races from other parts of the country simulcast on the televisions.

But more importantly, Smith says, “There’s just something about the place.” And she’s not talking about the 150-year old track’s well-documented warts. (Just a few of those warts: the outdated clubhouse that opened in 1960; the now condemned, century-old north-end grandstand; and the mismatched 1950s-era enclosed grandstand building between them.)

Horses race on Pimlico’s one-mile dirt oval no more than 12 days each year, but when Smith goes there, visions of races past, like Seabiscuit’s famous Great Depression-era battle with War Admiral, seem to rise from the dirt. The echoes of massive crowds, spanning generations, that have walked the grounds each third Saturday of May, nearly reverberate off the walls. And the stories of Preakness Stakes champions such as Secretariat, the 1973 winner who owns the race record, and celebrity trainers like silver-haired Bob Baffert, who have come seeking the eternal glory of the second jewel of the world-renowned Triple Crown, are shared frequently.

“The ghosts of Pimlico are still there,” Smith says. “You have to be half-dead to not sit there and have it wash over you.”

Born in Baltimore and raised in Annapolis in a sailing family, Smith, a history buff and longtime local tour guide, got turned on to horse racing in 2003 when the Triple Crown longshot Funny Cide passed through Pimlico. Smith quickly learned to appreciate the historic significance in her own backyard, figuratively and now literally.

From 2006 to 2015, she led sunrise tours of Pimlico’s stables each Preakness week, sharing all that she knew about Old Hilltop, as it was nicknamed in the 1800s. She is the very active co-moderator of the Friends of Pimlico Facebook group. She owns three horses—two of which live in a barn on her home property— and shovels manure every morning. Earlier this year, she converted her adult son’s former bedroom into a Pimlico shrine, complete with jars of dirt from the track.

In short, she simply loves the history of the real thing, just a 15-minute drive away. Sure, a serious upgrade may be long overdue. That became obvious back in 1998 when an electrical fire knocked out power on Preakness Day. But as the 146th running of the famed Preakness approaches this May, Smith fears a bit too much of Pimlico’s priceless authenticity will eventually disappear forever. That is if everything she’s read and heard about the track’s long-awaited and closer than-ever redevelopment plans is true.

WHAT TO DO WITH the decrepit Pimlico Race Course has been a source of endless talks, studies, and disputes for decades. Should the property be renovated or razed? Would the state take it over? How did its condition deteriorate to this point? Should the Preakness move 30 miles south to Laurel Racetrack, the preference of Pimlico owner Belinda Stronach?

Finally, in October 2019, negotiators representing three groups—the city, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association—reached a surprising agreement: to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, at Pimlico, but in a completely reimagined venue.

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