Across board, Preakness pulls up lame 123RD PREAKNESS

May 17, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Clarification

Yesterday's coverage of the power outage at Saturday's Preakness inadvertently left the impression that officials at Pimlico offered no apologies for inconvenience to fans.

In fact, the front-page story about the outage should have included quotes from Joseph A. De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, praising the "patience and sportsmanship of our fans the greatest fans in the country." De Francis also apologized in remarks to other news organizations.

In addition, a sports column criticizing De Francis for failing to apologize referred only to De Francis' remarks on the victory stand.

Let's call it what it was: a complete fiasco.

The worst Preakness ever?

Shoot, it was the first-, second- and third-worst ever. This retires the trophy.

"A very, very rough day," said Jim Mango, chief administrative officer of the Maryland Jockey Club.

What could top it? A tidal wave? A fire in the jockeys' room?

Wait, that's right, there was a smoke-out in the jockeys' room yesterday at Pimlico, courtesy of an electrical malfunction.

Of course, so many other bad things happened that that was just a footnote.

What else went wrong? Where to begin?

Thousands of bettors were unable to make wagers after the fourth race.

There was no lighting or air conditioning in many places in the grandstand, making for miserable conditions on a sweltering afternoon.

Fans were forced to negotiate pitch-black stairwells, resulting in numerous falls.

Smoke billowed out of the air-conditioning ducts in the clubhouse.

And good heavens, some of the ice in the shrimp bowls melted in the corporate village.

All that and more arose from a power outage that hit the track around 1 p.m., throwing Maryland's big day at the races into utter chaos.

The race itself was fine, with Real Quiet, the Kentucky Derby winner, making a powerful, late run to win by 2 1/4 lengths. He will attempt to win racing's first Triple Crown in 20 years at the Belmont Stakes.

"Now we're messing with history," the colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, told jockey Kent Desormeaux.

Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said in a nationally televised speech on the victory stand that "Real Quiet's victory made all the [day's] troubles worthwhile."

What he didn't say was this: "I'm so sorry that so many of our fans were inconvenienced."

Or: "Please accept our deepest apologies, and thank you for your patience."

Tens of thousands of fans spent big money on seats only to find themselves in a dark, hot and stuffy grandstand all afternoon, unable to bet because the track's computers were down.

Someone should have apologized. That no one did was a joke.

De Francis estimated that the blackout cost the track $2 million ++ to $2.5 million in wagers, which, though certainly bad, wasn't a total disaster.

But speaking of disasters, the damage to the track's reputation was Titanic-like.

"I sure hope it doesn't hurt our image," Maryland Jockey Club senior vice president Karin De Francis said.

Is she kidding?

"We lost virtually our entire plant for six races," Mango said.

With a record crowd in the place and a national television audience watching, no less.

Sorry, you can't spin that kind of ineptitude. You can't smile and put out a news release and say everything really was OK.

This was a total embarrassment for Pimlico and Maryland racing.

If the Maryland Jockey Club officials don't think so, they're the only ones.

They repeatedly pointed out that the power outage didn't occur at the track, that it resulted from a blown transformer at a nearby BGE substation.

They said it so often, in fact, that you thought they might hire a skywriter to fly over the track and write, "Not Our Fault, You Know."

To which there is only one appropriate response: Who cares?

The fact is that Pimlico is a dump and the Maryland Jockey Club is years late in putting any real money into the place.

Even if the track wasn't responsible for what happened yesterday, it's remarkable that an embarrassment such as this hasn't occurred before.

Or that the place hasn't just up and burned to the ground one day.

While De Francis pines for slots to save Maryland racing from evil Delaware, his Triple Crown track has become a rundown claptrap.

Pimlico has a historic past and a certain charm on the third Saturday in May, but for 364 days of the year, it's depressing.

No place for racing to stage a comeback, that's for sure.

The rest of the racing industry comes here for the Preakness and invariably has a fine time, but no one leaves saying, "That Pimlico, what a super place."

Yesterday's problems will only dig a deeper hole for the track's reputation.

At least we already know the ad campaign for next year: "Preakness 124: Hopefully, You Can Bet On The Race This Year!"

Actually, fans in the infield had no trouble getting their bets down all day; the transformer for the infield wasn't affected.

In other words, the drunk nuts in the infield had what the swells in the seats didn't.

Score one for the bleacher bums.

And, hey, score one for the general good nature of people in Baltimore and Maryland, too. If a power outage had blocked bettors from the windows for six races at Belmont or Aqueduct, the place would have gone up in flames.

Here, there was no riot. There wasn't even as much grumbling as you would expect.

But that doesn't alter the fact that this was, quite simply, a disaster.

A week of injuries to top horses, withdrawals of leading contenders and, finally, thousands of fans discomforted and unable to bet on the race.

"The Preakness From Hell," that's what we'll call it.

The worst ever.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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