There is something about that day in May when the sporting community turns their eyes to Baltimore, to Pimlico for the annual Preakness Stakes. Personally? I wait anxiously to hear “Maryland, My Maryland” sung by the Naval Academy choir, to fix myself a Black Eyed Susan (the drink) and watch the black eyed susans (the flower) on TV. For one day a year Baltimoreans care who the 12-1 or the 5-2 is at the track, everyone puffing out hot air they heard on that week’s news about who might or might not win the race. It harkens back to a time when horse racing was one of the major sports, a part of the community, of the local lexicon that pervaded everyday society. Today the Triple Crown gets most of the attention, with the Breeder’s Cup getting some airtime but not the hype. If a great horse comes by he or she will stay in the news for a few weeks and peter out until the Kentucky Derby swings by again and the hype begins anew.
But horse racing is not part of everyday life in Baltimore, and if they are not careful the city may soon not even have that one precious day of the year.
Pimlico has been in trouble for years, with the most recent news being the Maryland Racing Commission’s rejection of a 47-racing-day schedule that would have drastically cut back on racing days at Pimlico and Laurel Park. But the reason for the proposal in the first place was the continued struggles of the horse racing industry in Maryland, long ignored by the state legislature. Only this past July did MI Development step in to save Pimlico and keep the Preakness there, if only for the short term. The instability surrounding the race has increased every year, and no amount of slot machines will solve this endemic problem.
Maryland has long since lost its place as one of the centers of the industry, and risks losing what last vestiges it has to a once proud past. Now there are calls throughout the state for Governor O’Malley on down to take control of the track to force the historic race to remain in the state at Pimlico.
It is an admirable goal, and while I generally have a distaste for government intervention in sports, there are exceptions. Pimlico at this point is as much an historic location as it is a race track. It has become part of the perception of Maryland and Baltimore in particular, a source of pride for more than just the owners of the track. Legislators attempted to put a band-aid on their years of neglect of the horse racing industry in the state when they gave themselves the power to seize race tracks and forcibly keep races like the Preakness in Maryland. Had the state perhaps provided incentives that could have kept the Eastern Shore’s equine industry healthy for the past 20 years then perhaps they wouldn’t be in this position, but it’s better than nothing.
However, going forward there must be some commitment to the industry in the long term. If the Preakness is going to stay in the state it will need more than the grip of Annapolis to get it done- political will wanes faster than anyone expects at the time. There will need to be an investment in creating the kind of environment where racing can thrive. There is already a deep-seeded sense of identity that comes from Marylanders over the Preakness Stakes, the interest in horse racing is there. While the generation that typically patronized race tracks are getting older and the younger generation has not show the same fervor for the sport, there is still a unique opportunity for Maryland to keep that niche strong. They have the tracks, they have the land, they have the history. No, Maryland will never be Kentucky. But it can at least keep the crown jewel of its sporting events healthy in the state.