From the Alibi Breakfast to the solid-silver Woodlawn Vase and the Black-eyed Susan blanket draped over the winning horse, the Preakness Stakes is steeped in history and tradition. Saturday's much-anticipated contest at Pimlico Race Course will be — as it has been for generations — Maryland's biggest annual sporting event.
The thundering herd of 14 3-year-olds, the fastest in the world, will sprint around a 1 3/16-mile-long dirt track with more than 100,000 people from the well-dressed ladies in fashionable hats of the club house to the more plebeian, if no less exhilarated, throngs of the "Kegasus" infield bear witness — along with a and a national television audience of millions.
As the middle jewel, the Preakness is the venue where prospects for a Triple Crown winner rise or, more often than not, fall. This year it is Animal Kingdom, the Maryland-based winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness favorite trained by favorite son Graham Motion who operates out of Fair Hill. Rarely do Maryland racing fans have so much to cheer about.
Indeed, the news about Maryland horse racing has been so glum for so long that the pleasures and thrills of the Preakness can sometimes be forgotten. For one day each year, Baltimore is at the center of the racing world, and winning the Preakness is the thrill of a lifetime for those owners, trainers, jockeys and others who compete at the highest level of the sport.
It is impossible to predict the future of racing. Each year seems to bring some unhappy news. The horses don't bring in the crowds, or even the betting, that they once did.
The most recent blow, the possibility that racing would be diminished to a 40-day meet, was averted last year when Gov. Martin O'Malley brokered a deal between track owners and horsemen to maintain a 146-day schedule. But that was based on dipping further into racing's share of money earned from legalized slot machines to underwrite track operating costs.
In other words, Maryland racing remains on a most tenuous form of artificial life support. Still lacking is a plan to bring new customers to the tracks — unless, that is, one counts as a long-term strategy the sophomoric Kegasus or the racier "Get Your Preak On" marketing campaigns of last year to bring more drunkenness and debauchery to the Preakness infield.
As owners of the Maryland Jockey Club have so often reminded us, the Preakness is by far their most lucrative event, the Christmas of their calendar that supports everything else. But what a shame that they think so little of racing's other 145 days. How much nicer would Pimlico be today if the money spent jockeying for slot machines — either lobbying for them at the track or fighting their placement elsewhere — had instead been spent on renovations to aging facilities?
Nevertheless, news of Maryland racing's death is greatly exaggerated, as anyone headed to Saturday's festivities can attest. And the horse industry, of which racing is only a small part, remains a robust, multi-billion-dollar concern in this state and will likely continue to grow and prosper for the foreseeable future.
So for this one day at least, let us raise a toast (a ho-hum Black-eyed Susan cocktail if you must) to the Preakness and appreciate the excitement, heritage and yes, even the party atmosphere, of this remarkable event. Just ask the guy dressed up in the Kegasus suit. With so much money and political effort allocated over the years to keeping racing and this one event alive and in Maryland, not enjoying the moment would be a shame.