WHAT would Baltimore be without Preakness in the springtime? It's the annual event that sets the tone for this glorious time of year along the Chesapeake.
One hundred thousand people, or close to that number, will crowd Old Hilltop's grandstand and infield for Maryland's biggest day in the national -- and this year international -- spotlight. It's the 125th time this classic race has been run, the difficult second leg in horse-racing's fabled Triple Crown for three-year-olds.
The first Preakness was won by Survivor in 1873. Indeed, this race has been a tough, hardy survivor, weathering a brief transfer to New York tracks and another brief lapse in the late 1800s.
Now Pimlico is about to undergo a $19 million renovation. The place has been spiffed up for this year's big race, and repairs made to emergency exits to satisfy city fire inspectors. By next Preakness, the shape of an improved Pimlico will be in evidence, though the transformation could take five or more years.
That hasn't dulled the excitement building for today's Preakness Stakes. A Kentucky thoroughbred with a Japanese owner, an English trainer and a name that conjures up a winged horse of Greek mythology has drawn the most attention.
Fusaichi Pegasus, after winning the Kentucky Derby impressively, is being compared with Secretariat, the best three-year-old of the last half-century. Not only is this horse a sensation on the track, he's stubborn, perky and curious. But what counts is his performance in the mile and three-sixteenths race this afternoon. Another brilliant performer, Red Bullet, appears the top challenger.
The Preakness is largely a local affair, with a global audience. It puts dollars into local merchants' pockets. A 1998 University of Maryland study placed the total economic impact of the festivities at $51.6 million. That doesn't count the invaluable publicity from hundreds of journalists covering this major sports event.
Horse racing as an industry has been struggling. But at Preakness time, we develop a love affair with our local track. Some come for the quality races. Some come for the camaraderie. Some for the infield's anything-goes lawn party. Whatever the reason, they keep coming.
To them, the Preakness is a rite of spring and a splendid way to enjoy Baltimore at its best.