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Aging Pimlico Strains to Keep Its Grip on Preakness

"We'll be sitting on pins and needles Saturday, thinking, 'What's going to break today?'"

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    Aging Pimlico Strains to Keep Its Grip on Preakness
    AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
    Preakness Stakes contender Hence, left, walks off the track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Wednesday, May 17, 2017. The Preakness Stakes horse race is scheduled to take place May 20.

    It's Preakness week, so Pimlico Race Course is adorned with fresh flowers, coated in bright paint and filled with the anticipation that comes with hosting the state's biggest sporting event of the year.

    The new foliage and slick paint can't mask the fact that 147-year-old Pimlico is showing its age. Known affectionately as Old Hilltop, this old track has been trying for years to fend off the inevitable conclusion that it's badly in need of a serious makeover.

    Sal Sinatra, president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, attended the Preakness post-position draw Wednesday. The event was held inside a lavish tent, where jockeys, trainers and high-rollers downed good food and mixed drinks.

    Everyone appeared to have a good time. Sinatra can only hope that's the case on Preakness day.

    "We just need to have a nice facility," he said. "We'll be sitting on pins and needles Saturday, thinking, 'What's going to break today?'"

    "We don't have the sky boxes. These tents are nice, but not everybody has the luxury of spending $1.5 (million) on a tent. We have to have the right spot, the right venue to have the Super Bowl here in Maryland, basically."

    The Maryland Stadium Authority recently released a study that it could take anywhere from $248 million to $321 million to renovate the facility. If that doesn't happen, well, the Stronach Group, which owns the facility, has said it would consider moving the Preakness to nearby Laurel Park.

    Not so fast, says the governor of Maryland.

    "Governor (Larry) Hogan has made it clear that he wants to see the Preakness stay in Baltimore," Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said Wednesday. "The next phase of the Maryland Stadium Authority study will soon be under way, and the governor looks forward to seeing the results."

    So does Sinatra.

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    "Is it $300 million, is it $500 million, and then where does the money come from?" he said.

    Pimlico opened for racing on Oct. 25, 1870. The track introduced the Preakness in 1873 — two years before the Kentucky Derby — and it has been held annually in Baltimore since 1909.

    Though Pimlico has undergone many changes over the years, it still looks very much as it did in the 20th century. The grandstand, the stakes barns and the jockeys' quarters are serviceable but not ideal.

    Laurel recently had a $30 million facelift and now appears far newer and fresher. According to Maryland state law, however, the Preakness must be run at Pimlico unless there is "some type of emergency."

    Also, there's something to be said for the tradition of running a Triple Crown race at a track that once hosted Seabiscuit, Man O' War, Secretariat and Seattle Slew.

    "I do love history, and this is a beautiful place," said Mark Casse, trainer of Preakness entrant Classic Empire.

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    But does tradition mean that much at a place in such obvious disrepair?

    "You'd love to see Pimlico have the Preakness forever, but you also have to embrace modernization," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. "Sometimes it's a delicate balance of tradition and forward thinking."

    AP writer Brian Witte contributed to this report.