Close call at the Preakness

Second `jewel': Great day nearly marred by track intruder who endangered himself and others.

May 18, 1999

EVERYTHING WAS in place to erase the scorched memories of last year's Preakness, when the power went out. This time, the weather was perfect, a record crowd turned out, and electricity filled the air as well as the circuitry. The afternoon offered hope and just enough suspense that Charismatic could match his surprise win in the Kentucky Derby for a chance at horse racing's rare Triple Crown.

Then, three races before the 124th Preakness stakes, a man stole onto the track and struck a menacing pose as four tons of horse flesh rushed toward him.

Among the thoughts likely racing through the mind of Joseph A. De Francis at that moment: Why me?

Mr. De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, was in the midst of rebounding from an arduous 1998, which included the Preakness electricity outage and his conspicuous support of the loser in the governor's race.

This year was shaping up better, with a huge package to rehabilitate Pimlico Race Course about to be unveiled by Mr. De Francis. Even given the antics of well-lubricated infield party-goers in the past, who could have predicted this?

The practice of ringing the track with officers for the featured event should extend to all preliminary races. How the intruder made it as far as he did must also be re-examined.

But upbraiding Mr. De Francis for being the unwitting victim of such lunacy is as unfair as criticizing baseball owner Peter Angelos because an anti-Castro protester interrupted the Orioles-Cuba game or because a depraved visitor from the City of Brotherly Love attacked the Orioles' mascot.

Jockey Jorge Chavez deserves to be commended for masterfully steering his horse, Artax, around the man as he flailed his fist. Had the intruder, a mount or a jockey been badly hurt or worse, one can only guess at the repercussions for an event twice bitten so bizarrely and already unfairly maligned.

Fortunately, no injury resulted, including to the good name of the Preakness, a jewel many have worked so hard to repolish.

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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