Every year, they threaten to move the Preakness, but number 143 is here!
We all agree that the Preakness may be the “funnest,” of the three Triple Crown races and there are several reasons why. First, as six-time winning trainer Bob Baffert says, it is the most relaxed of the three races. The tension of getting a horse to the Derby healthy and ready is over. That alone makes it more relaxing and fun. Second, with the Derby over so, too is the end of the 20-horse field. As Baffert stated, “we already have a Derby winner and because of that, this is more of a pure horse race.” The Belmont is reliant on the Preakness and that can be good or bad. The other mark against the Belmont is the 1.5 mile distance. It certainly is the Test of a Champion, but it’s a distance that most horses run just once in their careers. The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles is a true challenge—longer than the oft-contested 1 1/8 miles but shorter than the classic 1 ¼ miles.
The Preakness has always been dubbed the “People’s Race,” and unlike the more sophisticated Derby, there will be more people in flip-flops and wedges than high heels. There will be thousands of young people drinking unlimited mugs of beer for $20 (plus the $100 admission fee) and bands will be rocking away on the infield stage. The pretense of the Derby has given way to a lighter, less serious tone at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
That’s another issue—Pimlico. The race course is old, falling apart, and is located in a tougher section of town. It is only open for 12 days this year, and the Maryland Jockey Club would love to move the race to the nicer, Laurel Park. Each year, the pundits will ask if this is the last Preakness to be run at Pimlico, but 365 days later, they’re back at Pimlico once again.
The main reason they keep coming back is Pimlico, despite the tough neighborhood and poor access can handle 130,000 plus people, something Laurel can’t do. Sure, they could run at Laurel in front of 50,000 or 70,000, but why do that when you can get 130,000 plus people to maneuver and wedge their into NW Baltimore? Until the MJC figures out how to make more money at Laurel, Pimlico will likely stick around.
The track likely needs $500 million in renovations to remain remotely viable and truth be told, it doesn’t make sense to make the improvements for 12, 24 or 36 days of racing when Laurel Park has already been renovated. Unless you’re Santa Anita, Del Mar or Saratoga, spending that much on renovations is hard to justify because most prefer to watch and wager off-track.
The Preakness might be the least serious and most fun of the three, but it is perhaps the most important. The Belmont Stakes can only wait to see the outcome of this the middle jewel. If Justify wins Saturday, the frenzy will begin; it will be three weeks of tension, anticipation and dizziness. If Justify finishes anywhere but first, the Belmont remains a classic American race with a little less air in the excitement balloon.
The track always looks nice on TV on the third Saturday in May, but I’m not there trying to make bets, use the bathroom or get something to eat and drink. I’m also a traditionalist; I would hate to see the race leave Pimlico because of the great history and drama. But, I am also a realist; and if they can build a new Yankee Stadium and move the team across the street, then the Preakness can certainly move to Laurel, a mere 29 miles away from Old Hilltop.
The fans seem to be coming to Pimlico’s defense. Last year, over 140,000 people attended to go along with over 50,000 on Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. The fans are making it tough for the Maryland Jockey Club to just up and leave.
Some for now, let’s enjoy the lighter, “funner” race of the trilogy and see if Justify can make it to the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.