BALTIMORE — With the original date for the Preakness Stakes two weeks away, the Maryland Jockey Club has yet to announce concrete plans for a postponed running of the state’s largest annual sporting event.
It has been more than a month since Churchill Downs Inc. moved the Kentucky Derby from May 2 to Sept. 5 because of the coronavirus pandemic. In a normal year, horses would begin shipping to Pimlico Race Course over the next week in anticipation of the Preakness.
But the Jockey Club’s parent company, The Stronach Group, has made no formal announcement since it canceled the Preakness InfieldFest on April 3. At that time, Stronach Group officials said they were “continuing to work with our key stakeholders to explore all options to set a new date for the running of Preakness 145.”
A company spokesperson did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment on the status of the Preakness, originally scheduled for May 16.
Shortly after the Derby postponement was announced, Gov. Larry Hogan said he and Jockey Club officials were discussing a corresponding move to September for the Preakness. But Hogan has not commented on the fate of the race since.
“We are in regular discussions with The Stronach Group about plans for the Preakness, but there are no updates at this time,” the governor’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said Friday.
The outlook is murkier still given the chaos the pandemic has created for NBC’s broadcasting schedule, which is generally more crowded in the fall because of Notre Dame football and other sporting events.
“We continue to work with The Stronach Group on a rescheduled date for the Preakness,” an NBC spokesperson said Friday. “We expect that we will be able to share more information soon.”
The state’s horsemen, who depend on the Preakness to support their day-to-day business, are waiting for news just like everyone else.
“I haven’t heard a thing,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
The absence of a clear path forward comes at a time when other states, including those that host the first and third legs of the Triple Crown, are preparing to resume live racing without spectators. In Kentucky, Churchill Downs will begin re-opening its stables and training area on May 11 ahead of a planned resumption of its spring racing schedule on May 16. The New York Racing Association has announced plans to run at Belmont Park this spring and at Saratoga this summer. The Belmont Stakes, usually run three weeks after the Preakness, is still scheduled for June 6 as of now. That raises the prospect of a Triple Crown series run out of order.
The Stronach Group, meanwhile, plans to resume live racing at Santa Anita Park in California on May 15, when the state’s safer-at-home order is scheduled to expire. The company has continued spectator-free racing at Gulfstream Park in Florida throughout the pandemic.
Maryland has not held live racing since mid-March, and the Jockey Club has announced no plans to resume its schedule at Pimlico Race Course or Laurel Park. But the state’s horsemen are optimistic that spectator-free racing might be allowed to return in late May as part of Maryland’s first phase of business re-opening. They argue that many of the people needed to resume operations are already at the tracks daily, exercising and caring for the horses stabled at Pimlico and Laurel. Online betting on race cards at Maryland’s tracks would provide one revenue stream for an industry that currently has none.
But the components needed for daily racing are hard to compare with those required for a Triple Crown race, which would be broadcast on NBC and attract horses from around the country.
The Preakness, Maryland’s most attended single-day sporting event (with a crowd of 131,256 in 2019), has carried on through world wars and other national crises. So the uncertainty around the 145th running is highly unusual, if not unprecedented.
City leaders have said the Preakness brings $50-55 million of annual economic impact, and revenues from the event bolster Maryland’s racing industry for the rest of the year. So if the second leg of the Triple Crown was canceled, the fallout could be devastating. It’s more difficult to project the economic hit from a delayed and/or spectator-free event, but it would also be significant.
“There are so many factors, from ticket sales to corporate sales to food and beverage,” said Foreman, who helped negotiate the redevelopment plan for Maryland’s racetracks that was approved by the General Assembly earlier this year and is serving on a panel advising Hogan on re-opening the state’s tourism industry. “If and when we do a Preakness, what is the race card going to look like? What revenue are we going to have to pay purses? … It has a big impact on the rest of the year.”
Though Churchill Downs officials have been adamant that the Derby will be run in front of a live crowd, Foreman said it’s hard to envision any major event, including the Preakness, carrying forward with spectators in the near future.
“I think that’s a given with any sport right now,” he said. “There’s concern about a second wave of this virus in the fall and winter. We don’t have a vaccine. … I haven’t heard anyone saying we’re going to be conducting events this year with spectators. I would be hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”
Foreman works in racing industry circles throughout the country and said he hasn’t heard anyone suggest outright cancellation for any of the Triple Crown races.
“I wouldn’t want to do it just to do it,” he said of the Preakness. “I want it to be a positive for the industry, a positive for the Maryland Jockey Club, a positive for the Maryland racing community. I think it’s important to the industry if we can do that. … For Kentucky, it’s important that they do the Derby. For (New York), it’s important that they do the Belmont. And for us, it’s important that we do the Preakness. “
Horsemen who’ve participated in the Triple Crown series say the races will be welcome, no matter when they’re run or in what form.
“First things first. We’ve got to get back to normal living,” said longtime Maryland trainer Mike Trombetta, who saddled Win Win Win in the Preakness last year. “The people who are moving these things around are smart enough to look at the schedule and try to do what’s right. I think we’ll all just be delighted to have them, regardless of what time of the year it is.”
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