Imperfect Gem

A blue-collar cap to Kentucky's derby, the Preakness is a race unlike any other at 'Our Old Pimlico home'



It's quirky and gritty. Its history is complex. Its patrons are blue-collar. It has been the backdrop for glory and for disaster, on and off the track.

Tradition calls for it to be held on the third Saturday in May, and when it comes to the Preakness, which will be run tomorrow for the 132nd time, we know this: More so than the other legs of horse racing's Triple Crown, inside the gates of Pimlico Race Course, anything, truly anything, is liable to happen.

The Kentucky Derby has its stuffy but classical traditions: fancy clothes, mint juleps and the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" before the race. The Belmont Stakes is, more often than not, anticlimactic and dull. It's been likened, by one famous horse racing writer, to an evening concert at Carnegie Hall.

But the Preakness feels like a blues band in a dirty basement bar: loud, messy, dangerous and thrilling all at the same time. It's an event with perhaps almost as many infamous days as record-breaking ones.

"If the Kentucky Derby is a circus, then the Preakness is a carnival," said William Nack, who has written about horse racing for Newsday and Sports Illustrated since 1954, and penned several books about the sport. "It's always been my favorite leg of the Triple Crown because it has such a blue-collar feel to it. It's folksy, almost like a county fair."

A county fair, though, that can be unpredictable. A year ago, Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner, looked like a potential Triple Crown contender until he broke his leg seconds after leaving the gate. In 2005, Afleet Alex stumbled down the backstretch while on his way to winning the race, narrowly avoiding a crash that likely would have been catastrophic.

In 1999, during the seventh race of the day, a 22-year-old man reeking of alcohol stumbled onto the track and tried to punch a horse in midrace. He later told police he was attempting to commit suicide.

In 1998, a power outage during the 123rd Preakness cut off air conditioners in the 92-degree heat and shut down kitchens, as well as betting machines. The track sued Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. for an estimated $5 million in lost revenue. That same day, an unrelated electrical fire filled the jockey's lounge with smoke. Former Mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer called the mishaps a "black eye for the city" in an interview with The Sun, and suggested that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was to blame.

Old-time tales, too

The strange happenings at Pimlico have hardly been limited to recent decades though. In 1894, 24 years after the racetrack opened, a fire destroyed the grandstands. In 1966, a fire destroyed the Member's Clubhouse, which was, at the time, the nation's oldest racing edifice.

When you throw in the ongoing saga over slots and the annual stories written each May posing the question "Will this be the last Preakness for Baltimore?" it certainly seems, at times, as if the gods have enjoyed toying with Pimlico over the years.

"I remember in 1958, people wanted to turn the place into a site for a warehouse," says Joe Kelly, a Pimlico and horse racing historian who covered his first Preakness for The Sun in 1946. "They wanted to move it to Laurel and close Pimlico. The bill was defeated by one vote. I liken it to an old shoe. It's a comfortable old place. It's amazing to me it's stayed here as long as it has."

Kelly disputes the idea that the track has seen more than its share of bad luck. After Barbaro broke down last year, Kelly went through Pimlico's records and determined that only nine horses had failed to finish the race since 1909, and that the favorite had won about 35 percent of the time.

But no one in 1978, Kelly says, would have predicted after watching Affirmed win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes that they'd go nearly 30 years without seeing another Triple Crown winner. Nine times since 1978 a horse has managed to win the Derby and Preakness and not the Belmont.

True grit

Still, and as long as the Kentucky Derby winner continues to show up at the Preakness - which has happened every year since 1986, a year after Spend A Buck's owner Dennis Diaz decided to run his horse in the Jersey Derby instead - the Preakness will have a buzz to it.

"The one thing the Preakness has that the Kentucky Derby doesn't have is the Derby winner," said Randy Moss, a horse racing analyst for ESPN. "There is a lot to be said for that."

The gritty history of Pimlico and the Preakness has been, in many ways, a gift as much as it's been a curse. Nack - who recently published a memoir, Ruffian, about his lifelong love affair with horse racing and his memories of Ruffian, widely considered the greatest female horse ever - says the Preakness will always be his favorite leg of the Triple Crown because of the intimacy of the event.

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