Outside Of The Preakness, Maryland Horse Racing Faces Uncertain Future

Written By Sam Hollingsworth on June 2, 2023
maryland horse racing future

With the Preakness Stakes in the rearview and all (interested) eyes now on the Belmont Stakes, there’s a much bigger question — or questions — facing Mid-Atlantic racing, specifically as it pertains to the state of Maryland.

For years — even decades — people around the racing world, as well as those outside of it, have speculated that Maryland horse racing is at risk of consolidation or closure.

Some have even gone as far as to say that the Preakness would move from Pimlico Race Course — and perhaps even out of the state.

But, not so fast.

From what we know currently, running the Preakness at Pimlico for the foreseeable future — and well beyond that — is the only certainty within the all-encompassing situation of speculation and unpredictability pertaining to the future of Maryland horse racing.

“The Preakness will be a Pimlico,” Bill Cole said recently, an advisor who has been working on negotiations for Maryland horse racing on behalf of the City of Baltimore over the last several years. “There is no other alternative site. Baltimore is not going to lose the Preakness.”

But, despite Cole’s apparent certainty, there is so much else to wonder — and maybe even reimagine — when it comes to Mid-Atlantic horse racing, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, and Maryland’s two treasured race tracks: Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

The plan for modernized, logistical updates at Laurel Park and Pimlico

It’s been a long, winding road when it comes to the overall state — as well as the safety and longevity — of horse racing in Maryland.

And, despite it seeming like a real corner was turned just a few years ago when the state passed a law committing more than $400 million in cash and bonds to renovate and improve both Pimlico and Laurel race tracks, the outlook is not nearly as hopeful today as it was then.

The monumental deal to modernize and restore both of the Old Line State racecourses was passed in 2020, but it looks unlikely to happen that way now.

It’s reported that the money secured for the investment to the tracks is well under $350 million short of the total investment needed, according to the Maryland Stadium Authority. This is a result of multiple factors including historical inflation and material costs, after-the-fact changes to renovation project plans for Laurel Park, and the multiple complex variables involved including it being a multi-jurisdictional and multi-year project, among other things.

As such, the plans for redevelopment of both tracks have been indefinitely halted and new plans are being fully explored over the coming months.

This includes more collaboration, research and analysis, and, of course, debate, to land on something that makes sense for all involved, or as close to it as possible.

Betting on the Preakness was down 16% in 2023

Despite another (successful?) Preakness Day in the books from the heart of Maryland horse racing — Pimlico Race Course — there are now more questions than answers.

And, yes, those questions even pertain to the one certainty within the Maryland horse racing saga: the Preakness.

The second jewel in the Triple Crown trilogy that is also Maryland’s big chance in the spotlight each year — and also a day of which happens to be one of the few profitable, high-value racing days on the Maryland horse racing calendar — isn’t at its best either.

The Preakness Stakes betting handle for 2023 was its lowest since 2020 — with just over $54.5 million wagered on the race — a 16% drop vs. 2022 ($65.3 million) and a 20% drop vs. 2021 ($68.7 million)

Betting handle for the entire Preakness Day was down 5% total vs. last year — down to $100.2 million in 2023 for the day vs. $105.5 million in 2022.

It was also recently announced that Pimlico would be shutting down its off-track betting facility by June 30.

The lead up to the Preakness was tumultuous

There are a variety of factors to consider when looking at the numbers listed above. It’s certainly not just because of the state of Maryland racing, although there are plenty of pain points within that argument.

For starters, it was one of the most turbulent and tumultuous Triple Crown buildups in recent memory.

From the leadup to the Kentucky Derby, the wild race itself on the First Saturday in May, then the aftermath leading up to the Preakness — it seemed like every day there was some new headline that changed the shape, and potentially the outcome — of the big race on May 20, 2023.

We had several big-name contenders drop out of the Derby — including morning-line favorite Forte, who was also disqualified from running in the Preakness after state vets scratched him from the Derby — then other competitors got in, and ultimately only 18 horses got in the starting gate that evening.

Forte scratched just hours before the Kentucky Derby.

All of this just one year after one of the longest shots to ever win the race captured it and stunned the world when Rich Strike crossed the wire first.

And it was two years after longshot Medina Spirit, who was trained by controversial trainer Bob Baffert, initially won the race, only to have his win stripped after the colt tested positive for a banned race-day substance, ultimately thrusting the Brad Cox-trained Mandaloun into the winner’s circle.

Baffert-trained Authentic won it in 2019, and the ever-so-controversial Maximum Security was DQ’ed from the race in 2018 and longshot Country House was awarded the win.

All seems pretty straightforward, right?

And, throughout all the craziness before the big day of racing at Pimlico that literally included several years of buildup, there was more that unraveled that day, too.

That included a different Baffert-trained racehorse being euthanized on-track before the problematic trainer ultimately won the Preakness Stakes when his horse National Treasure outlasted his competitors.

All of this came less than two weeks after Laurel Park had its own problems with horses breaking down and the track being temporary shut as it was deemed to potentially be dangerous for horses and jockeys, it’s easy to see why, on top of all the before-mentioned issues, things aren’t great for Maryland horse racing currently.

If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.

So much more to consider in the face of adversity

The future of Maryland racing depends on even more factors.

The long-considered move of consolidating Laurel and Pimlico into one facility isn’t even feasible since Laurel needs an extreme and complex makeover, and Pimlico simply isn’t big enough to host year-round racing.

All of this is happening as the tracks continue to deteriorate. Just weeks ago a portion of the Pimlico grandstand was closed down due to safety issues.

Let’s also consider that, in 2020 and 2021, America and the rest of the World were enduring a global pandemic that sent a wrench into any and all plans, regardless of what they were or where they were — especially in 2020 when there was not much knowledge, understanding, or expectation yet set for the odd situation we were all dealing with.

The COVID-19 pandemic also propelled Preakness Day to the beginning of October in 2020 — a first-of-its-kind scenario for a Saturday that usually takes place on the third weekend of May.

This all continues to come at a time when racing isn’t getting the best press.

On top of horse fatalities, big-name disqualifications and even trainers being banned from tracks across the country, we have had plenty of other black marks hurting the good that racing brings to places like Maryland annually.

Several big-name horses have been disqualified — some of which have since died — including Kentucky Derby winners, as well as career-ending barn raids, arrests, and sentencing, and so much more.

Lastly, we can’t ignore the closure of so many legendary race tracks across the country, with more inevitably coming in due time.

From the heartbreaking loss of tracks like Chicago’s Arlington Park and California’s Hollywood Park (both of which were replaced or to be replaced by NFL stadiums), to the disappearance of places like Hialeah Park, Calder Race Course, and even Suffolk Downs, just to name a few, it’s clear this is a trend that isn’t changing anytime soon.

It’s truly no wonder the state of horse racing is characterized best by a bunch of big question marks — not just in Maryland, but throughout the United States.

Here’s to hoping Maryland can get this right and get back on track with both of its distinguished tracks, and that the Preakness stays right where it belongs.

Photo by Nick Wass / Associated Press
Sam Hollingsworth Avatar
Written by
Sam Hollingsworth

Sam is a native New Yorker with a long history of sports betting as well as watching, wagering, and owning racehorses, and, of course, casino-frequenting. He enjoys visiting sporting venues — anything from the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to any baseball game regardless of the level of play or length of the drive to get there, and any horse racing venue. Sam is a marketing executive, father and dog owner with a zest for life and love for exploring.

View all posts by Sam Hollingsworth
Privacy Policy