No. 133 and counting

Our view : The Preakness returns, but racing's woes haven't left

May 16, 2008

There is no bigger day on Baltimore's calendar than tomorrow, when large crowds will descend upon Pimlico Race Course for the 133rd running of the Preakness Stakes. With a strong favorite, Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, whose trainer is a Hagerstown native and whose jockey is a veteran of Maryland tracks, the excitement at Old Hilltop should be running high.

These are difficult times for horse racing. Attendance at races, wagering, the number of racing days all have been in serious decline at tracks all over the country for years. Add to that the continuing questions about drug use and the high-profile breakdowns of Eight Belles at the Derby and Barbaro at the Preakness two years ago, and there's every reason to be pessimistic about the sport.

But as serious as these problems are, it's hard not to appreciate the allure of thoroughbred racing - at least on this magical day. From the stylish women's hats of the grandstand to the hedonism of the infield rabble, there is a much-apparent joie de vivre on display. Nor is there a shortage of dramatic story lines behind each entrant, thanks, in no small part, to the reliably colorful human personalities of the racing world.

Such a thing is worth preserving, not just because of its worth to the local economy or even the favorable publicity it brings the area, but because of the intrinsic cultural and historic value of the Preakness and Pimlico. This is an important piece of Baltimore's heritage; it should not be taken lightly.

Meanwhile, hovering about is this fall's referendum to legalize slot machines, a portion of the revenues from which would support racing. But no matter how one stands on slots, it is no cure-all. It can't revive fan interest in a sport any more than underwriting Western Union would bring back the singing telegram.

Horse racing needs to be a destination event and not merely an excuse to wager. It is an industry that has lost its way - but for a relatively small number of venues and races. Lucky for us, the Preakness is one of the truly exceptional.

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