In Baltimore, the dawn of spring guarantees many things. There will be the radiant colors of blooming foliage, the chipper songs of tweeting titmice and, of course, renewed speculation about the future of the Preakness Stakes.
The race’s home for the last 109 years has been the Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore, but for what seems like almost as long, there’s been debate about whether the Preakness should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to Laurel Park, a racecourse in Prince George’s County.
The 148-year-old racetrack is surrounded by neighborhoods with historically robust and religiously observant Jewish populations, and despite the fact that the Preakness is always held on Shabbat, many Jewish people who live nearby consider it an indispensable part of the community.
Avrahom Sauer, the president of the Cross Country Improvement Association, does not like to imagine a Preakness held at Laurel Park.
“That would be like me telling you, ‘I’m going to cut off your right arm — tell me how you’re going to live your life after that,’” he said. “That should not be an option. If the Preakness were permitted to go down to Laurel, that would spell the end of the track.”
The economic boon Preakness provides for the neighborhoods in Northwest Baltimore is undeniable. A 2016 study of Maryland’s horse industry by the Sage Policy Group concluded that Preakness generates more than $30 million dollars in revenue each year. The race — one of the races of the vaunted Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing — draws more than 100,000 patrons from across the country and is televised nationally.
In addition to the Preakness, Pimlico has hosted many historic horse races over the years, including the unimaginable 1938 upset that saw Seabiscuit, a knobby-kneed, undersized horse, beat War Admiral, the previous year’s Triple Crown winner.
Rabbi Larry Ziffer, who has lived on Greenspring Avenue for more than 25 years, believes the course is a unifying force for the entire Northwest Baltimore community.
“It’s a nexus connecting two important parts of Northwest Baltimore,” he said. “It has a lot of economic value, potentially linking value between the Jewish community, the African-American community and other faith communities.”
Here to stay
The speculation surrounding the Preakness Stakes’ future at Pimlico is nearly as traditional as the race itself. The question has been the subject of an endless number of studies and media reports, including in this publication. However, the prospect of the Preakness Stakes leaving its historic location in Northwest Baltimore is less likely than one might think.
In 1987, a state law was passed specifying that Preakness can move to another Maryland racecourse “only as a result of a disaster or an emergency.”
Even though moving the race is legally forbidden, and coupled with harsh penalties, Del. Pat McDonough (R-District 7) sponsored a bill in 2018 to establish a study group on building a “supertrack” and performance center in Baltimore County. The bill received an unfavorable rating and never made it to a vote.
While Preakness is unlikely to leave Baltimore anytime soon, the racecourse does need substantial renovations.
In February 2017, the Maryland Stadium Authority concluded that Pimlico is a viable location for the race, but the estimated cost of improvements could range anywhere from $250 to $320 million.
“Last year, the question was, ‘Should we spend $300 million in state and local funds for one day a year?’” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41).
However, Rosenberg, the legislator who proposed the study, feels that question is no longer relevant as the second phase of the study, which should conclude by the end of 2018, explicitly states it is to look into year-round, non-racing uses of the facility.
Despite the high price tag, Rosenberg remains confident that the Preakness will remain where it is.
“It doesn’t benefit Northwest Baltimore for this site to be vacant or underutilized,” said Rosenberg. “If Preakness stays, there will be upgrades. There will be other uses for this site.”
Northwest’s anchor tenant
The communities surrounding the Pimlico racecourse are locally infamous for their disparate living conditions, with residents all over the socioeconomic spectrum. In 2018 thus far, three homicides have been committed within half a mile of Pimlico. In 2017, 39 homicides were committed in racecourse’s zip code, one of which took place on Belvedere Avenue, directly next to the track.
Ziffer said communities like Glen and Cheswolde feel stable, but feels a concerted economic plan to better integrate the adjacent neighborhoods must be considered.
“It’s a daunting challenge, but I think it’s something that would benefit everyone,” he said. “I think it would be in the Jewish community’s interest to help those in need.”
For his part, Sauer emphasizes the existing economic impact the Preakness has on his neighborhood, comparing it to a city hosting the Super Bowl every year.
Like Ziffer, Sauer feels that major improvements would only enhance what is already there, adding that members of his community “would love to see the area utilized in a more efficient manner. We have to ensure that there is something here for future generations.”
As a a nonprofit committed to strengthening neighborhoods with a significant Jewish presence, Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, services the communities north of the racecourse.
“In a shopping center there is typically an anchor tenant,” said CHAI CEO Mitch Posner, who before coming to CHAI, worked in commercial real estate. “In this case, the major anchor to the many, many good things that can happen at Pimlico is the fact that the Preakness is there.”
Posner believes an investment in expanding Pimlico’s purpose by adding a 21st- century library or retail to the campus would be a “major shot of energy” to the community.
“The stability and strength of a neighborhood benefits all,” he said. “If I have confidence in my community, I am going to stay there to live and shop and worship and all the things people do in their lives. That’s the nature of community.”
Bring on the noise
Most days, the neighborhoods surrounding Pimlico are tranquil: There’s little noise aside from the distant hum of Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue, and light traffic by both automobile and pedestrian. Come time for Preakness, more than 100,000 people from around the country flock through the communities, creating an uncharacteristic hustle at resounding volume.
The neighborhoods’ tree-lined streets come with few parking restrictions, turning the community into Pimlico’s unofficial parking lot.
The neighborhoods near Pimlico receive community services from Shomrim, the Northwest Citizens Patrol, and Hatzalah. Leaders of two of these organizations said the increased traffic doesn’t pose many barriers to their service.
Eli Goldstein, the executive director of the Alvin S. Mintzes Hatzalah of Baltimore, which frequently transports patients to Sinai Hospital, said his organization simply changes its route, taking Greenspring Avenue rather than Northern Parkway. Only in rare instances have they been forced to avoid Sinai altogether.
“Sometimes Sinai gets a little clogged up,” said Goldstein, “so we choose to go to either a Towson hospital or a downtown hospital.”
Glenda Harris has lived on Whitney Avenue just blocks away from the racetrack for more than 20 years. Aside from the noise from helicopters on the day of the race, Harris looks forward Preakness each year.
“I love the people,” she said. “And I’ve noticed the quality of people has changed since they started insisting on alcohol sales at Preakness instead of letting people bring their own. I noticed a big difference in the neighborhood because of that.”
The racetrack’s 2009 policy change banned patrons from bringing personal coolers with beer or liquor to the infield area of the track. While 2009’s Preakness saw a dramatic drop in attendance, each year since except for 2013 has seen an incremental increase, including record-breaking years from 2014 to 2017.
Part of that success could be attributed to the creation of InfieldFEST, a concert featuring three popular musical acts, also established in 2009.
Neil Schachter, the president of Northwest Citizens Patrol, lives on Greenspring Avenue. He said for whatever downside the increased traffic might cause, the community always looks at the positives.
“We have 100,000 people who come in to spend money and to have a good day in the area. Pimlico would not exist without this anymore,” he said.
When it comes to making Pimlico a year-round destination, Schachter is open to supporting a number of ideas, including more concerts, as long as they take late-night noise into consideration.
“We do have some concerts going on, and the only issue with concerts is the noise level into the evening. It’s amazing to see how far the noise and the music can travel. You can actually feel the reverberation of the speakers,” said Schachter. But even that hasn’t proved to be a problem.
“We don’t have anyone coming out and starting up with the community, we don’t have people driving reckless and driving down street signs and running into trees,” he said. “It’s almost a non-issue.”
As for those who keep Shabbat, such events — and the Preakness in particular — don’t seem to intrude in a negative way.
“For the Orthodox community, the Preakness is pretty irrelevant,” Ziffer said, adding that the community associations send out flyers reminding residents of the date of Preakness and suggesting they be careful of the increased traffic. “The Preakness is a historic event. Everyone knows what the Preakness represents and there is a certain amount of community pride in that.”