Baltimore's gem

Editorial Notebook

May 15, 2004|By Karen Hosler

HOW TO EXPLAIN?

A sport that relies on animals so fragile they die if a meal doesn't go down right and they can carry a thousand pounds on legs skinny enough to snap like a twig?

A sport that pressures its human competitors not to eat at all so they can perch almost weightlessly on equine rockets with little protection against disaster but their ability to hang on?

A sport that draws most of its income from fans disparaged as elderly and dwindling, bettors who snub live action outside to sit in dimly lit rooms and watch contests simulcast from elsewhere?

A sport that places the biggest gamble and toughest handicapping on breeding, tens of thousands of dollars and years of waiting spent to learn if the result is dud?

And yet a sport that can suddenly erase all the toil and trouble with a moment so sweet it lifts a nearly 78-year-old Roy Chapman out of his wheelchair with oxygen tubes flying in a two-fisted salute to his horse's victory in the Kentucky Derby?

James Courtney, breeder of Maryland's 2003 champion 3-year-old filly, Finally Here, who fell and broke her leg in her last race and never got up, described horse racing this way: "Great highs and terrible lows."

This should be a day of great highs, as Baltimore plays host to the 129th Preakness Stakes, second jewel of racing's Triple Crown.

An extravaganza of nearly Super Bowl proportions, the Preakness marks the midpoint of a brief season in which racing's fans seem to multiply a thousandfold, a season that thrusts Derby winner Smarty Jones onto the coveted cover of Sports Illustrated.

The event pumps an estimated $60 million into the regional economy each year; and offers a particular bonanza for Maryland racing - one-third of Pimlico Race Course's annual income flows through the turnstiles and betting windows on Preakness Day. The wagers contribute generously to purse money for Maryland races all year.

Maryland's horse people are watching today's Preakness with a certain ambivalence, though. The Triple Crown has become too rich for their blood.

"We're very blue-collar in Maryland," said Linda Albert, Bowie-based trainer of Water Cannon, the only Maryland entry in today's 11-horse field. "We don't aim for the Preakness because it seems such an unattainable goal for most of us; we'd go broke trying."

No Maryland horse has won the Preakness since 1983, when the Woodlawn Vase went to Deputed Testamony of Bonita Farm; he was the grandfather of the ill-fated Finally Here.

But it's been even longer since anybody's horse has won the Triple Crown - Affirmed in 1978 - and the whole industry is rooting for the new fans attracted by an undisputed champion.

Funny Cide, the Everyman gelding who went two for three last year and tapped into the Seabiscuit craze to build the largest television audience for the Belmont Stakes in a decade, fell short in that contest.

He's winning again, but hot weather scratched plans to race him in Baltimore yesterday, and stoke the fan appeal that comes with a sentimental story.

So while Water Cannon is a local favorite, he might rank second in an exacta topped by Smarty Jones, who has sentiment going for him in spades - an underestimated middle-ranker from a mediocre Philadelphia track whose undefeated record gives his aging owners the thrill of their lives.

At a time when jockeys are protesting weight limits, the economic viability of the industry is threatened and even the Preakness as a Baltimore institution is in question, the sharp rivalry between Maryland and Pennsylvania horses somehow seems less important.

Whatever happens, a winning horse from a humble background proves the payoff of great highs is still within reach.

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