Being in the middle puts race out front

As Triple Crown midpoint, Preakness has a leg up

May 20, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

The racing industry in Maryland has gone through its own Triple Crown of crisis lately, from the state's failure to legalize slots to the defection of breeders and trainers to tracks in Delaware and West Virginia to the herpes virus that ran through the barns of Pimlico and Laurel this year.

For one Saturday in May, however, it's difficult to use anything but rose-colored binoculars to view the spectacle known as the Preakness Stakes. Today, more than 100,000 fans are expected to pour into the refurbished but still ramshackle track on Northern Parkway for the race's 131st running.

The Triple Crown is horse racing's answer to March Madness, and the position of the Preakness, two weeks after the Kentucky Derby and three weeks before the Belmont Stakes, is as attractive in drawing large crowds as having a favorable post position is for the horses and jockeys pursuing one of sport's most coveted achievements.

The Derby weeds out the pretenders, and the Belmont must pray for the first two races to be swept, but the Preakness has hype and hope on its side until the moment the race ends.

In this case, being stuck in the middle works to Pimlico's advantage.

"We are the race that the Kentucky Derby winner makes his debut. That is a tremendous asset to have, and that's what makes the Preakness the Preakness," said Karen De Francis, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

"It is the Preakness that decides whether a horse goes on and possibly reaches racing immortality or whether the Belmont is just another race."

Neil Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, said the Preakness is in select company.

"The big-event platform in the United States is quite secure. There are a relatively small list of events that do well, attract a significant television audience, have an exciting format, and I think the Preakness is clearly within that group of events," he said. "The Belmont, on the other hand, lives and dies with the Triple Crown opportunity."

Since reaching the 100,000-fan level for Derby winner Charismatic's victory in 1999, Pimlico has dipped below six figures in attendance once and set attendance records in three of the past five years.

Some figured that attendance might have peaked at more than 112,000 for Smarty Jones in 2004, but an additional 3,000 or so showed up last year to see Derby winner Giacomo lose to Afleet Alex, with room for 2,000 more, a Maryland Jockey Club official said.

"It was an amazing sight from my office," said Mike Gathagan, vice president of communications. "You couldn't see any green" on the infield.

Gathagan said the buzz surrounding two Philadelphia-area horses, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, brought legions of fans down Interstate 95. That could happen again this year because the Philadelphia media have claimed Derby winner Barbaro as a local horse even though he trains in Fair Hill, Md. Six Philadelphia television stations are covering the race.

Why, when the number of diehard fans going to the racetrack regularly appears to be dwindling nearly everywhere, does attendance at such events as the Preakness (and the betting handle) continue to increase? Is there something aside from rum, vodka and triple sec in the Black-Eyed Susans that keeps bringing them back?

"I think they've marketed it quite well," said Ed Siegenfeld, executive vice president of Louisville, Ky.-based Triple Crown Productions. "I think they've made it a go-to event. I think it's grown in many ways like the Derby has. It will never become the Derby, and we all know that, but it's become very special on its own."

Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Center for Sports Marketing at the University of Oregon, said, "I don't think there's as much a drop-off between the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont as there was 15 to 20 years ago."

Attendance figures in recent years bear that out. Without a dazzling field at Churchill Downs this year, the Kentucky Derby drew a record crowd of more than 157,000. In 2004, the Belmont pulled in more than 125,000 to see Smarty Jones' unsuccessful try in the last leg for the Triple Crown.

It doesn't put these events in the same neighborhood as the Indianapolis 500 (about 250,000) or the Daytona 500 (200,000), but it certainly dwarfs figures for major golf tournaments and Super Bowls held outside the Rose Bowl.

Attendance doesn't necessarily translate to huge television ratings in an era when viewership for most events has dropped precipitously as the sports consumer is overwhelmed with choices on network and cable broadcasts.

According to Nielsen Media Research, this year's Kentucky Derby drew a 7.4 rating for the overall race coverage, the third straight year that the ratings have fallen. (The ratings measure the percentage of television households watching a program.)

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