Preakness needs to recapture luster for the Triple Crown

John Steadman

May 14, 1993|By John Steadman

What the Preakness needs more than another bunch of ersatz black-eyed Susans or a phony attendance announcement is a horse race befitting a grand occasion. One that's memorable, a classic.

(In 1985, an earlier administration lied to the press and public by falsifying the "official" crowd count by an unbelievable 31,856.)

The Preakness is a sporting gem. For more than a century it has played a storied part in racing history. Provincialism aside, it's not the Kentucky Derby and never will be. The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, the mint julep and Stephen Foster represent a parlay that's difficult to beat.

Traditionally, the Preakness gives horses that had excuses in the Derby, brought on by traffic congestion, a chance to set the record straight. That's always a useful purpose. Apart from that, racing, on a larger scale, requires something that will serve as a catharsis to free it, at least temporarily, from so many troublesome ailments.

There's the fundamental numbers game, where fewer thoroughbreds are being bred because of the facts of financial life. This translates to races lacking an adequate field of horses to fill some programs.

How can the players maintain their interest if the fields are undersized and some of what stock is there has little chance of ever paying for its keep, much less offering a return on the investment?

The quality farms of yesteryear, the Calumets, Wheatleys and others worthy of being mentioned in the same reference, are no longer in business. Owners come and go. One of the few stable stables is Rokeby, headed by Paul Mellon, and if its Sea Hero, the Derby champion, can win tomorrow at Pimlico it will sustain the premise of Triple Crown promise and keep hope alive.

Racing is changing -- drastically. Off-track betting, simulcasting, inter-track wagering, multiple ownership of thoroughbred plants in adjoining states and other new wrinkles continue to be talked about and implemented. With the additions and alterations has come a disconcerting feeling of unrest, even distrust, among various segments within the sport.

The owners of Pimlico, which is the Preakness stage, are at odds over control. The Brothers Manfuso, Tommy and Bob, are taking the president, Joe De Francis, to court to settle the issue, which then causes De Francis to respond with a lawsuit of his own. Such turmoil doesn't enhance a feeling of competence in the endeavor. It also splits the racing constituency.

Questions arise and doubt erodes some degree of confidence. This is not a situation in the best interests of a sport that means much to Maryland's present and future.

A horse was inadvertently killed at Pimlico in April because of a short-circuit in the starting gate during a morning workout. Had it not been for heroic action by Danny Fitchette, an assistant starter, exercise rider Richard Beck may have suffered the same fate. More controversy, explanations and regrets followed.

Every piece of trash found on the property is blamed on De Francis, as if he threw it there, rather than the careless, uncaring spectator who dropped it. Pimlico's improvement plan, where $4.1 million was budgeted for the backstretch, had to be sidetracked because other priorities needed to be addressed.

Meanwhile, De Francis has not only Pimlico but Laurel to worry about, along with the training center in Bowie. The responsibilities are many, the pressure unrelenting. An auspicious running of the 118th Preakness is the order of the day -- not only for Maryland, but for the entire industry because of the positive impact it would create.

If the weather is comfortable -- and there have been just two sloppy surfaces for the Preakness in the past 20 years -- the storm clouds that have gathered over racing during the country's economic decline may clear, if only for one glorious day.

The most productive story is one that would have a residual influence. And this could only mean the Preakness serves as a return engagement to the winner's circle for the triumphant Derby team of owner Paul Mellon, trainer Mack Miller, jockey Jerry Bailey and Sea Hero. That's the best scenario, unless you don't like collecting on favorites.

A Triple Crown contender coming out of the Preakness would defuse some of the negative thinking and allow those in racing to dream again.

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