Preakness as metaphor, full of unique charm

Past and future of Baltimore collide in a celebration of who we are

May 20, 2011|Peter Schmuck

Somewhere it must be written on a stone tablet — or on the back of a betting slip — that heading into the third weekend in May, we must again examine who we are and why the Preakness Stakes is such an important part of that.

The answer is not just at Old Hilltop, but in every place around Baltimore where one generation clings to tradition while the next tries to conform it to the realities of a new age.

That's why on the same (hopefully) sunny Saturday afternoon, the swells in the box seats will sip their Black-eyed Susans while the sots on the infield hail something called Kegasus and wonder why they can't bet on him.

The Preakness is Baltimore in so many ways that you'll have to just take my word for it. To those viewing from afar, the second jewel of the Triple Crown is — like the old town around it — the halfway point between here and there. It is the pregnant moment when horseracing's biggest prize becomes a real possibility or is placed back in storage until a horse more worthy comes to claim it.

To those who joyfully cheered Secretariat on his way to history in 1973 and watched in horror as jockey Edgar Prado tried desperately to calm the mortally wounded Barbaro five years ago, it is much more than just a mile marker between Churchill Downs and Belmont Park. It is the quintessential Maryland sporting event.

Certainly, there would be no horse racing of any note here without it. Not anymore. The erstwhile "sport of kings" has been in decline for awhile now, and only partly because we are running out of kings. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the ramshackle Pimlico Race Course on just about every other day of the year except for one shining Saturday in the spring.

That's also the beauty of it, in a weird sort of way. The old track gets all gussied up for this weekend like a proud dowager trying to hide the frayed hems of her best gown, which too becomes an allegory for a city that is forever trying to cover its warts.

The Preakness is our day in the national spotlight. The television and cable networks show the old race track from the best possible angles and celebrate Charm City with cutaways of the Inner Harbor, other local attractions and the Chesapeake delicacies being served in the corporate tents. You can't buy that kind of advertising.

The rest of the year, the image of Baltimore is painted in the minds of the rest of the country like so many reruns of The Wire.

Which brings us to a question that bubbles up every time another unhappy economic development sparks rumors that the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club (MI Developments and Penn National at the moment) will move the Preakness to a better-heeled location. What would we do without it?

We would survive, of course, because it's only a horse race and it's just that one day every year and, well, if Baltimore could rise again as a sports town after the Colts left, anything is possible.

Let's just hope it doesn't come to that, because there's really something quite special about a single sporting event that has brought Baltimoreans of all classes together every year since Ulysses S. Grant was president.

The first Preakness was won by Survivor on May 27, 1873. The last one was won by Lookin At Lucky last May 15. In between, there have been 11 Triple Crown winners, but none since Affirmed turned the horseracing hat trick in 1978. Animal Kingdom, the long shot from Maryland who paid nearly 43.80 to win the Kentucky Derby, would not seem to be a likely candidate to join that royal group, but he's our hero because he's the only one with a chance this year.

Maybe the kids cavorting on the infield don't really get all that. Maybe they need somebody like Kegasus to spark their interest in this aging sport and drag some dollars out of their pockets to keep Maryland racing alive. That's okay, because it's worth the price of admission just for the party and the heart-stopping moment when all eyes turn to the finish line.

The history and tradition are free.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" on Friday's at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and WBAL.com.

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