If you love horse racing, this is the best time of the year, and that excludes Saratoga, which opens July 21. Let’s review some exciting things that we have seen and hope to see going forward.
We’ll start with the Kentucky Derby. It wasn’t a great race as Always Dreaming cruised to victory over a game Lookin at Lee. Those two were the only horses moving forward at the wire; the others struggling to get there. Trainer Todd Pletcher picked up his second win and jockey John Velazquez also picked up his second. As we know, it was the first time that this long-time tandem won the Derby together.
Two weeks later, we had the Preakness at aging Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore and again saw how tough it is to win a Triple Crown in this great sport. As expected, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire dueled from the start. They cut sensible fractions and it looked like a thrilling stretch run was in the forecast. But, sitting chilly and in a great stalking position was Cloud Computing, ridden by Javier Castellano. As Always Dreaming faded, perhaps Classic Empire let down his guard and in the end, we got a great stretch run with the Chad Brown trained “CC” picking up the win. If it’s a big race, I like having Castellano in the saddle. He kept his cool and when it was time to make his move, he did so effortlessly and graciously.
Cloud Computing had enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby and credit must be given to Brown here. I don’t know too many owners that would skip the Kentucky Derby for the Preakness. For most owners, the dream is to have a horse that qualifies for the most prestigious race in the world, but Brown knew something. The easy call would be to enter the Derby, but Brown was able to tell the right story to the two owners of CC, “Hey, it would be great to run the Derby, but I think we can win the Preakness.” It certainly helped that one of the owners grew up going to Pimlico and the thrill for him to win a race in his backyard helped Brown make his case. Classic races are classic races just like majors are majors in golf and tennis, but winning the PGA Championship and the French Open compared to The Masters and Wimbledon are different. Brown was able to convince his clients that a PGA Championship is a major, just like The Masters is and the owners bought in and the result was garnering the Black Eyed Susans that go to the Preakness winner.
There are easy stories to do and then there are stories that are even easier. An example would be when news stations cover the soup kitchen dishing out 400 turkey dinners on Thanksgiving; the first day of school; and the mall on Black Friday. Every Preakness week, we get the old “Is this the last Preakness to be contested at Pimlico?” Some phrase it differently of course, but it seems inevitable that the day will come when the Preakness moves to Laurel Park, 30 miles southwest of Baltimore. There is a state law that says if the Preakness is run in Maryland; it must be run in Baltimore. But, the law has a natural loophole in it. The race could be moved out of state—to Gulfstream—or it could be moved out of the country—to Woodbine—two tracks that are owned by the Stronach Group. When push comes to shove, the Maryland General Assembly will amend its law to keep the race in the Old Line State.
Pimlico is the second oldest thoroughbred track in the United States, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimates that Old Hilltop needs up to $500 million in refurbishments to remain viable. The Stronach Group has stated that they will not pay a cent for this, so where is the money going to come from? Can we expect the taxpayers to contribute to a facility that is in a bad, crime-infested section of Baltimore and only races 12 days per year? The Stronach Group has already done major refurbishments to Laurel Park and truth-be-told, that’s where they want the race to be. But, like everything, there are political ramifications to consider going forward. I predict that a phase out plan will be implemented to give all those involved a time to mourn and a time to celebrate Pimlico’s greatness. Laurel has already secured a Breeder’s Cup, and if an owner wants to close a business, shouldn’t they be allowed to? The answer is not that simple because horse racing is heavily regulated by the government, but it appears that the future of the Preakness is at Laurel.
Americans tuned in for both races. The Derby scored a 10.5 rating and 23 share while the Preakness did a 4.9/11. There’s always a drop off but still, the Preakness was the highest rated sporting event of Saturday, May 20.
Next up is the Belmont Stakes, the grueling 1.5 mile trek around cavernous Belmont Park, better known as Big Sandy. The ratings will likely drop off with no Triple Crown on the line and moreover, no rematch between the Derby and Preakness winners as Cloud Computing is an almost certainty to miss the race. Still, it is a classic American race and if you call yourself a sports fan, you’ll be watching.
The Pimlico Special was contested on Black Eyed Susan Day and the venerable Shaman Ghost powered home to win the 1 3/16 mile race, which is the same distance as the Preakness. Shaman Ghost continues to add impressive stakes wins to his already nice racing resume.
The Black Eyed Susan Stakes was won by the Jason Servis trained Actress and while the BES doesn’t measure up to the Kentucky Oaks, it’s a nice win nonetheless.
The Preakness continues to draw fans to Pimlico and in recent years, the marketing of Black Eyed Susan Day is beginning to pay off. There were over 50,000 fans in attendance to go along with a record crowd of 150,000 plus on Saturday. When and if the Preakness leaves Baltimore for Laurel, it will be sad because the Preakness event is something to behold. Once the race gets to Laurel, it will undoubtedly be more of a corporate affair with higher priced tickets, luxury boxes and no infield admissions. But, I suppose that’s the modern evolution of sports; draw less, charge more and ultimately, make more money.
Until next time.