For about two minutes late Saturday afternoon, the fastest 3-year-old horses on the planet will run on the 1 3/16 -mile dirt track at Pimlico Race Course in the Preakness Stakes. This is the middle jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown, and no Baltimore sporting event is bigger, livelier or more steeped in history and convention.
From the Woodlawn Cup to the blanket of black-eyed Susans that will grace the neck of the winner, the raucous infield crowd and the well-dressed ladies in the grandstand and corporate tents, it's hard to imagine Baltimore's third Saturday in May without the familiar scene at Old Hilltop.
Yet never has the event's future seemed more uncertain than it does today. As unthinkable as it might be to contemplate an end to this 136-year-old Baltimore institution, the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing two months ago of Pimlico's owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., has cast a certain pall over this year's proceedings and raised questions over whether a new owner might take the race elsewhere.
Maryland racing's future has been in doubt for quite some time, of course. The sport no longer attracts the crowds, or even the gambling, that it once did.
Years of debate within the state legislature over whether to allow slot machines at the tracks has resulted in an uneasy but voter-endorsed compromise of sorts - slot machines are coming but not at Pimlico nor, it appears, at its sister track in Laurel, although a portion of the proceeds will eventually be used to bolster horse racing at both locations.
Competition from neighboring states with their "racino" tracks and lucrative bonuses for homegrown race winners have already depleted Maryland's thoroughbred industry. To visit Pimlico on most any day but Preakness day is bound to disappoint: It isn't the sport of kings so much as the sport of the fixed-income retiree and the gambling-addicted.
Could Pimlico rebound? Could it return to the old, glory-filled days when Baltimoreans left work early to catch the afternoon races, and sports pages carried long articles on the latest news from the track?
Slot machines can put an ailing race course on artificial life support, but they won't restore the sport's appeal to a broad audience. The Preakness is a reminder of what racing can be - a sport as thrilling as any other. Is there no way to extend that excitement beyond one afternoon?
Preserving Maryland racing is not merely some sop to the nostalgic (although 250 years of racing and breeding in the Free State should not be taken lightly). The industry accounts for thousands of jobs and $600 million in economic activity. Horse farms occupy more than 600,000 acres of the state, or about 10 percent of the open space.
The Preakness is the one day each year when Baltimore is, if only briefly, at the center of the sporting world. This year it is also a reminder of what could be lost - or found again - depending on whether new life can be brought to an old tradition.