Updated on 09/16/2011 8:22AM

Pimlico need not be a dive


BALTIMORE - As visitors arrive here for the Preakness, they will carry on a Pimlico tradition: decrying the dismal condition of the 132-year-old racetrack.

A few journalists will surely write the obligatory annual column saying the facility isn't a worthy home for a Triple Crown event. Everyone is quick to blame the Maryland Jockey Club and its president, Joe De Francis, for Pimlico's many defects. But few of the critics have offered ideas that make financial sense for improving the home of the Preakness.

Although Pimlico's perennial eyesores - the dilapidated barns nearest the track - have either been torn down or cleaned up, critics now have a new one to complain about: the Lumitron.

Pimlico's management this spring terminated the use of the infield tote board and replaced it with a giant video screen. In front of what used to be the odds board are 516 bleacher seats for fans willing to pay $250 for the privilege of watching the Preakness with no cover from sun or rain.

Although there was an obvious profit motive behind the change, Pimlico officials thought the Lumitron would be an improvement. "We were led to believe," said Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, "that it would act as both a video screen and a source of data for our fans."

But many of those fans objected that they often couldn't find a horse's odds when they wanted to see them, and frequently they couldn't see anything at all. When sunshine hits the Lumitron, fans viewing it from an angle are more apt to see a blue blur than a set of odds. The Lumitron became such a cause celebre that the Maryland Racing Commission even took up the issue.

The Lumitron is just the latest addition to Pimlico's long list of functional and aesthetic deficiencies. The far end of the grandstand evokes a seedy New York subway station. The slanted ground floor of the grandstand is better suited to skateboarding than to watching races. The benches and picnic tables on the "apron" overlooking the track appear to have been a project for a remedial high-school shop class. The claustrophobic fluorescent-lit indoor paddock is absurd for a track that operates in spring and summer, when horses can be saddled out of doors.

Yet the people who visit Pimlico for the Preakness are the ones with the least grounds for complaint about the facilities. At least the track is big enough to accommodate the crowds of 100,000 or more that show up on the third Saturday in May. As long as there is not a calamity like the power failure in 1998, these fans should be able to survive an afternoon as comfortably as the Derby crowds at Churchill Downs.

Pimlico's shortcomings are more evident the other 364 days of the year, when the sparse crowds create a dispiriting atmosphere. One day last week I walked through the grandstand and counted 13 people looking out at the racing strip. The other customers had come to Pimlico to watch simulcasts.

Yet in the entire plant there is not a satisfactory theater for that purpose - one with desks at which a bettor can spread out his programs and Racing Forms and watch the action on a bank of large television screens.

For a horseplayer spending a day in the grandstand, Pimlico's other big deficiency is its abysmal concessions. Because ventilation problems preclude cooking such gourmet items as hamburgers, the fare consists of pizza, hot dogs, and pre-wrapped sandwiches.

While the Maryland Jockey Club receives continual criticism for not improving its facilities, it put $3.5 million into capital improvements at its two tracks during 2001. "We've spent a lot of money on our facilities," said Raffetto, "but it's in the areas that people don't see, such as fireproofing."

He acknowledged, "This place needs a lot of money, but the money isn't there."

A recent Baltimore Sun series on the state of Maryland racing quoted various racing leaders espousing the concept of a "supertrack" to replace Pimlico - horse racing's version of Camden Yards. That's an absurd vision.

Camden Yards hosts big crowds 81 days a year; a Maryland supertrack would be useful one day a year, but at other times the sport plays to small crowds of simulcast-oriented bettors. Even if one of the big investors in the Thoroughbred industry - Churchill Downs or Magna Entertainment - bought the Maryland Jockey Club, it seems unlikely that either would be inclined to invest tens millions of dollars to revamp a track that is useful one day a year.

Instead of thinking grandiosely or doing nothing at all, the Maryland Jockey Club ought to target a couple of projects that could transform Pimlico. The construction of an attractive outdoor paddock would greatly enhance the aesthetics of the track for the Preakness and every other racing day. A well-designed simulcast facility (on the lines of the pleasant Sunny Jim's room at Laurel Park) would be a boon to the players who support Pimlico year round. Maybe the simulcasting room could even find a way to serve customers a salad or a hamburger. Even the most modest changes would be appreciated by Pimlico's long-suffering fans.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post