Preakness takes its place as a winning show Maryland's biggest sports event draws worldwide attention.

May 12, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

George Mohr was a boy of 10 when he attended his first Preakness, in 1924. The 49th running earned winning filly Nellie Morse $54,000 and attracted thousands of fans from as far away as New York.

There was no infield then. A small hill occupied the area inside the oval track, which is why Pimlico Race Course still carries the nickname "Old Hilltop."

A smattering of horsemen would watch the races here, the wise ones standing near trees in case a horse ran wild.

Many of the fans tended to be well-dressed racing aficionados. There were no college students in cut-offs.

"The Preakness was big, but not an iota of what it is today," recalls Mr. Mohr, a retired Baltimore horse trainer with 57 years in the trade.

Though it trails the Kentucky Derby in prestige and importance, the Preakness Stakes has grown into an event that brings national attention to Baltimore, as well as more than $400,000 to the winner.

The race, which will be run for the 117th time Saturday, has become the biggest single sporting event in Maryland.

It draws nearly 90,000 fans to the track and 5 million more to their television sets.

More than $22 million is bet at the track and 200 other sites from Arkansas to New York and California to Florida.

Combined with a 10-day festival of balloon rides, regattas and horse races, the event annually pumps more than $20 million into the state's economy.

As that money changes hands, the event's total economic impact exceeds $40 million, according to studies by the state.

The Preakness has grown in recent decades into an international event through a combination of savvy marketing and strong leadership.

"I think it was probably looked upon in the 1940s and 1950s as the weak link [in the Triple Crown] that was swept along," says Edward Bowen, editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse, a weekly magazine of the breeding industry.

Today, the Preakness is among the handful of horse races that the average sports fan can identify.

It is probably second or third in prestige and value among the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup, says Richard Thalheimer, a racing consultant from Lexington, Kentucky.

The Kentucky Derby has long been the most important race in the nation. Its dominance began in the 1920s when aggressive marketing -- led by Col. Matt Winn, the legendary promoter who also worked for Laurel Race Course in its early years -- and strong financial backing allowed Churchill Downs to take advantage of the nation's sports boom, Mr. Bowen says.

Though two years younger than the Preakness, the Derby established itself not only as the premier race for up-and-coming horses, but also as a national rite of spring. This happened partly because the Derby traditionally was run first. But the Preakness remained significant, especially after a sportswriter in 1930 applied the term "Triple Crown" winner to the horse that could sweep the Derby, Preakness and New York's Belmont Stakes (11 have done it since 1919).

"I think the Preakness is special because it is the first title defense for the winner of the Derby. You almost always have a potential Triple Crown winner," Mr. Bowen says.

By contrast, Belmont Stakes attendance varies widely, depending upon whether a Triple Crown contender comes out of the Preakness.

Many people trace the beginning of the modern, multimillion-dollar Preakness to a decision in 1964 to allow fans onto the infield.

Now associated mostly with bawdiness and beer, the infield, with a capacity of 60,000, attracted enough people to ensure Preakness coverage on television.

"When you get over 50,000 people coming to a sporting event, the networks take notice," says Chick Lang, who was general manager of Pimlico under the Cohen family, the longtime owners.

Mr. Lang, an outspoken horseman more comfortable with $2 bettors than owners' box celebrities, was a firm believer that the infield would lure extra betting and hook some first-time fans to the sport. He hired students at area colleges to sell $3 tickets to the infield. Bands played on makeshift infield stages, and lacrosse matches were held.

During the next decade attendance at the race jumped from 35,000 to 75,000. The money bet by fans in the infield now often exceeds that wagered in almost every other area of the track, Mr. Lang says.

Impressed with the numbers, ABC signed on in 1977 to broadcast all three Triple Crown races, ending a pattern of hit-and-miss coverage of the races.

"I think the Triple Crown and the Preakness has grown with television. The more national attention you get, the more local attention you get," says Jim McKay, ABC sportscaster and Maryland horse breeder.

The event had a scare in 1985 when Derby winner Spend A Buck was lured away from the Preakness by a bonus to run in the Jersey Derby. It seemed to be the most serious challenge ever to the Triple Crown. It forced the owners of the three tracks to cooperate, and Triple Crown Productions Inc. was formed to promote the races.

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