Kevin Cowherd: With future at Pimlico secure, Preakness 2012 is best in years

May 19, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

Let's come right out and say it: This was the best Preakness we've had in years.

What a day it was at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday. You had a great crowd: a record 121,309. You had a handle of $80,463,005, sixth highest in Preakness history. You had Chamber of Commerce weather: temperatures in the mid-70s under a bright sun and cloudless sky.

You had an absolutely thrilling Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another catching favorite Bodemeister in the last three strides to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive.

And for the first time in years, no one was wailing about the Preakness possibly leaving Pimlico, which was a hot topic of discussion with Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas.

Chuckas, he loves me like a brother since I trashed the idea of unlimited beer for 20 bucks in the infield and a low-rent mascot like Kegasus being the centerpiece of the Preakness ad campaign.

OK, I'm kidding about the love I get from Chuckas. But he didn't pitch me over the press box railing Saturday. And he seems a lot more hopeful about the Preakness' remaining here since the deal that was worked out between Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Maryland legislature and Frank Stronach, the big-shot racing magnate who owns Pimlico.

“I think ... it's pretty safe,” Chuckas said. “The Preakness is here. The real issue is — and I don't want to put a damper on everything — horsemen and breeders and the track working out something ... balancing the financial viability of the racetrack with racing opportunities for the horsemen. That's what it comes down to.”

Yes, well, let's make that an issue for another day.

This much is certain: Three years after the bring-your-own beer policy was struck down, the infield crowds are back.

It might not be the same as when you could hand-truck in half the contents of a Budweiser brewery and be trashed by 10 a.m. But with race officials signing musical acts like Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa, this year's headliners, there's a new energy in the infield, which I discovered when I ran into Dave Steibe of Highlandtown.

Steibe, 52, was attending his 27th consecutive Preakness. He and his buddies were camped along the fence in the backstretch. The area was chosen strategically, he said, since it forms a triangle near the three essentials: beer vendors, betting kiosks and Porta-Potties.

Listening to this, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

“The Preakness is back, but it's back differently,” Steibe said.

The bands attract a better class of infield-goers, he said. And people are having a good time without the craziness of the Wild West Preakness days, when drunks ran across urinals and madmen flung full cans of beer at their heads.

Back then, Steibe's wife, Sue, saw a knock-down, drag-out fistfight and vowed never to return. And six years ago, Steibe himself was caught in an artillery salvo of beer cans between warring factions of drunks.

“Not five or six beer cans, but hundreds,” he said. “It was unbelievable! It was stupid!”

Sure. But unbelievable and stupid have always been hallmarks of the infield.

But this was no time to dwell on that, either. It was too nice a day at Pimlico — too nice a week, really.

Part of that, in my mind, had to do with the presence of Doug O'Neill, the larger-than-life trainer for I'll Have Another, who shipped to Pimlico right after the Derby.

What a wonderful goodwill ambassador O'Neill was for his sport.

He and his team seemed to hit every restaurant in Baltimore. He visited sick kids in the hospital. He threw out the first ball at an Orioles game. In his long, black canvas raincoat and sneakers, he looked like a cross between “The Matrix” and the noon pickup hoops game at the Y.

But he was invariably friendly and gregarious with everyone, and a veritable quote machine for the media. The only time I saw the smile leave his face was when he discussed the “milk-shaking” charges leveled against him, allegations he fed a horse an illegal combination of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes to help him run better.

O'Neill swore on all that was holy that he had never done this. And he promises to discuss it with reporters once the matter's resolved. I hope he's telling the truth.

Now O'Neill gets to take his act to Elmont, N.Y., site of the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. He'll be asked to go on Letterman's show and Leno's and every radio morning zoo show, too. Me, I have no doubts he'll be a huge hit there, too.

If there was a negative note to this Preakness, maybe it was jockey Kent Desormeaux's pulling one of the all-time knucklehead moves and blowing a high number on a Breathalyzer test, high enough to be taken off Tiger Walk, the 14-1 shot from Kevin Plank's Sagamore Farm.

There was also Maryland's own Rick Dutrow, the trainer of 20-1 shot Zetterholm, who's appealing a 10-year suspension and $50,000 fine for what was described as a “long history” of drug violations involving his horses.

But I wouldn't dwell on that. This was a great day at Pimlico. A great day for Baltimore.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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