Op-Ed: New Pimlico needs the old
April I. Smith is co-administrator of the Friends of Pimlico Facebook group and has been a tour guide in the Baltimore Area for over 20 years. The opinions expressed in this article are hers.
As an urban tour guide for the Baltimore National Heritage Area, former guide for Sunrise at Old Hilltop, and co-administrator of the Facebook page, Friends of Pimlico, I am asked by many how I feel about the new Pimlico plan. First off, I think that what Messrs. Rifkin, Foreman and Cole have engineered here is remarkable and I truly hope it passes in the Legislature. And yes, I, am jumping for joy at the idea that there will always be a Pimlico Race Course and that the Preakness will always run there.
But as an historian, I am not jumping quite so high as others. There are parts of this plan that can only be described as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
For one thing, there’s the proposal to re-orient (and shorten) the track. There is only one reason the plan proposes to change the configuration of the old track, and that is to make larger, squarer building lots. Not for buildings that are track-related or remotely helpful to the Preakness experience, either. Anybody with enough dough or enough connections can put anything they want there. Not my idea of smart growth.
For those who have never thought about it, race tracks are laid out with consideration of where the sun hits. There is actually a method to the 1870 madness, which the new planners would know if they had asked an old racetracker.
Another matter worth considering: quite a few sons of the turf have chosen this historic oval as their final resting place, making this track hallowed ground in more ways than one. Perhaps we should not be in such a hurry to get rid of it or the land that surrounds it.
In a world of the fake and the contrived, I have found that everyone, including much-maligned millennials, is looking for something real. So if they are not going to get the track where every Triple Crown winner has raced, then at least give them the authentic, historic, wooden barns – and not just the one with the Derby winner’s stall! There is a certain smell and aura that only an old stable has. You can’t invent it or bottle it, but when you feel it, you know it’s the real thing.
For years, it has been suggested that the fabulous wedding-cake design of Pimlico’s Members Clubhouse be rebuilt. All around the world, people associate Pimlico with a cupola and a weather vane. So why on earth did the planners think a structure that looks like a Kleenex box sitting over Hitler’s Bunker would do?
The racing public deserves a fitting cathedral to what this site stands for and a suitable home to what is said to be an awesome collection of racing memorabilia. A substantial building with real walls will also be able to accommodate priceless architectural features like the Bernard Zuckerman gold bas-relief of the Great Race, the Raoul Middleman murals, and other charming pieces from the present buildings.
Populous, formerly known as HOK, designed the proposed new clubhouse. That’s the company that also designed the retro-inspired Camden Yards, so we know they can do better. And we will only get one bite at this apple; the new Pimlico will either be an iconic building connecting Thoroughbred racing’s past to its present and future – or it won’t. We need to get this one right.
Finally, I must say a word about not using Pimlico for training anymore. Besides the hardship foisted on those trainers based there today, it is a very shortsighted decision from a tourist attraction standpoint. The tours of Pimlico during Preakness week are packed. Rundown as the facility has been allowed to become, the tours and the great race itself, break attendance records almost every year. Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert said it best: “There is magic here.”
Just ask the whole student population of Arlington Elementary who walk over for a half day field trip every May. And every time they come, the guides look at each other and ask, ”Why do we only do this once a year?” Why are we chasing out the backbone of our industry and the magnificent people-magnets that they train?
In 1958, a bill that would have closed Pimlico and transferred its racing dates was defeated in the Legislature by one vote — ONE vote! And now, on the eve of its 150th year, are we ready to destroy its history just so we can keep it? The second oldest racecourse in America, one of only three Triple Crown tracks, deserves the best and so does our sport. The New Pimlico needs the Old.
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