That lump of coal that Pimlico Race Course fans received in their stockings came in the form of official word Dec. 20 that the home of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) would, in 2017, also be the home to only 11 additional days of live racing.
That announcement came at Tuesday's monthly meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, held at Laurel Park, which will play host to 150 days of racing action next year.
Racing will take place at Laurel through May 7—the Sunday following the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I)—before moving to Pimlico. It will remain at Pimlico for the duration of May, with the track racing May 11-14, May 18-20, and May 25-29.
The Preakness takes place May 20.
Sal Sinatra, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns both Laurel and Pimlico, said there were two major factors in deciding to trim Old Hilltop's schedule from last season's 28 days to next year's 12.
"It worked last year, opening up the weekend before the Preakness and letting the guys set up the infield (including all of the corporate hospitality locations)," Sinatra said. "And then we get past the Preakness, and (one) it was a ghost town there last year and (two) the majority of the complaints—and when I say majority, we're talking 70 to 80%—you can't see the backstretch from the frontside because of all the structures."
The infield tents and other structures block views across the racetrack for most patrons, certainly a common lament among racegoers. But the MJC has maintained that they are necessary to provide the kind of high-end hospitality options necessary to lure major corporations—and generate crucial revenue on Preakness day and Black-Eyed Susan day, the two biggest cards of the Maryland racing year.
The MJC's desire for a first-class modern racing facility—and Baltimore's interest in keeping the Preakness in the city—led the various interests to team up with the Maryland Stadium Authority on a study of the future of Pimlico and its feasibility as the home of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. The first phase of that study is expected to be complete in the first half of 2017.
Sinatra said, however, that the shortening of the meet was not a sign that the company had abandoned Pimlico or pre-judged the Stadium Authority study.
"That really isn't it," he explained. "We're waiting on the same Stadium Authority results (as everyone else). I just want the customer to have the best experience. For Preakness, we have to build this civilization in the infield, which takes the better part of two to three months. I can't get it down quick enough to continue racing there for everybody to have the same experience after the Preakness."
Simulcasting continues at PImlico Wednesday through Sunday, though the MJC has ceased to provide food service there other than vending machines. According to Sinatra, the track's food service operation was costing the company far more than the revenue that it generated.
Sinatra said that the change has not affected wagering at the track, however.
"The customers there are coming to bet," he said. "They're not there to buy beer and hot dogs."