With the Preakness Stakes, Del. Sandy Rosenberg reminisces on history
Del. Sandy Rosenberg used to spend childhood Saturdays at his friend Jay Slater’s home, across the street from Pimlico Race Course. Peeping through an attic window, they would gape at the horses galloping away. Sometimes the boys would climb up to the house’s roof for VIP seating. Downstairs, Slater’s father would hire someone to help park all the cars that would come to his block for the big day.
Today, the Pimlico Race Course is the famous site of legendary champions and a historic, weathered debate about its redevelopment. But long before Rosenberg became a legislator in 1983, back before he made sure this past weekend’s Preakness Stakes was still held in Baltimore, the track was a monumental part of his life.
The last famous horse he glimpsed from Slater’s house was Secretariat in 1973, but Rosenberg, who represents the 41st district where Pimlico is located, would continue to watch the races and have friends over to celebrate the iconic Maryland sport every year.
The racetrack was even the spot where Rosenberg, now a congregant of Beth Am, found out nationally earth-shattering news.
“Once, we went home from school on a Friday afternoon, and as we were walking to the track, we noticed the flag was at half-staff. We asked people what was going on, and they said President Kennedy was shot,” Rosenberg said. “We went home to Jay’s house. We were watching the TV when Walter Cronkite took off his glasses to look at the clock and say, at whatever the time was, that the president is dead. It’s an indelible moment.”
Rosenberg became a legislator in 1983, and in 1987, concerns about Pimlico arose. People critiqued the track itself as dangerous for the horses and noted the stadium’s neglected conditions. Out of the storm of debate was born a state law that the race must be run at Pimlico, and only ever moved in the scenario of an extreme disaster.
“In order to move the race to Laurel, you would have to change the law,” Rosenberg said.
However, that didn’t silence criticism. In 2015, prompted by negative statements about the neighborhood by racetrack officials, Rosenberg proposed that the Maryland Stadium Authority conduct a study about the site.
“I worked with the Maryland Jockey Club to provide funding for an outside party under contract to do that study. It found that, yes, it’s a good site, but it does need a 21st-century facility,” he said. With that analysis, a bill was created to fund renovations of Pimlico and Laurel. “Then this session  there was legislation that would have put in motion the transformation of Pimlico into a non-racing site. My colleagues and I made the case to our Baltimore City colleagues that it was not in Northwest’s interest nor the city to change that,” he said.
The Baltimore Jewish Council, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore was particularly supportive of keeping the location.
“Pimlico is key to the future of northwest Baltimore,” Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, said in a statement. “It will help unleash the potential across Park Heights, and we need to do everything to make this happen.”
Baltimore City’s Council voted unanimously in support of keeping Pimlico a racetrack and passed a bill in March 2020 to fund renovations.
However, community leaders did enter negotiations later to divvy up the property somewhat. Slightly less than 50% of the property would be needed for racing purposes (stables, seating and the track.) The rest would be set aside for housing, commerce and offices to complement LifeBridge Health’s plans to develop a site it owns adjacent to Pimlico.
CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc., an agency of The Associated, got involved in the redevelopment as well.
“CHAI is a community development agency with roots in northwest, and a founding partner of the Northwest Baltimore Partnership, which aims to build value in Park Heights,” CHAI CEO Lisa K. Budlow said. “The redevelopment of the Pimlico race track property and investment in the surrounding neighborhoods will help attract additional investment, creating opportunities for residents to live, work, shop and play in Park Heights.”
Then this May, Gov. Larry Hogan passed the Racing and Community Development Act, “to keep the Preakness in Baltimore permanently and turn its blighted home into a sparkling new multi-use facility,” according to the Baltimore Sun. The project comes with a price tag of $389 million. While it may seem like a costly investment, the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute estimates that the construction project could generate more than $900 million in economic activity and create more than 5,300 jobs.
“To use a racing metaphor, we’re not at the finish line, but we’re in the lead as we enter the stretch,” Rosenberg said. “We’ve made it from having real concerns about whether the Preakness would leave, to having the opportunity for a horse racing facility comparable to the Camden Yards stadiums and, at the same time, to redevelop the majority of that site for community benefits such as recreation or housing.”
Budlow shared her excitement.
“CHAI is thrilled that the Preakness Stakes will remain at its home in northwest Baltimore,” she said.
This year, Rosenberg wasn’t able to watch the Preakness in person Oct. 3, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, he used an old trick.
“I’m going to walk from Mt. Washington past Jay Slater’s to the Club House and watch from there,” he said, in advance of the race.