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Drama, festivity saturate Preakness

5/14/2010

"Dreams were born about a horse that would come sweeping past the twin steeples of Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby, go busting by the picnickers in Pimlico's infield for all that Preakness gold, then take to the track in the Belmont Stakes and blow the field down in the oldest of America's classic races for three-year-olds."

-- The Preakness, Red Smith's Sports Annual, 1961

BALTIMORE, Md. -- Welcome to Baltimore. Welcome to Pimlico. Welcome to the Preakness Stakes. It has survived a few hurdles to make it this far.

For 135 years, the nation's best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds have competed in what is known as the second jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown; one mile and three-sixteenths run around the compact turns of "Old Hilltop." The Preakness is Maryland's signature sporting event, with a history as rich and storied as that of its more glamorous predecessor, the Kentucky Derby. That history is also rife with turmoil, from a 15-year stretch beginning in 1889 when the race was run at a racetrack in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the recent financial debacle that threatened to place Pimlico Race Course and fellow Maryland Jockey Club racetrack Laurel Park on the auction block at the beginning of the year.

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The Thoroughbred racing industry in Maryland has been in turmoil since the 1970s, when the state lottery began to compete with tracks for the wagering dollar. Over the years, this downslide continued with the development of casinos and approval of slots in neighboring states such as Delaware and West Virginia. By 2002, when Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corporation purchased a 51 percent share in the Maryland Jockey Club, the situation was grim. And in 2007, when the organization bought out the DeFrancis family's remaining 49 percent of the Jockey Club, which includes Laurel and Pimlico, the fight was just beginning.

Political and legal wrangling intensified after Nov. 5, 2008, when Maryland voters approved a proposed state constitutional amendment authorizing the issuance of five licenses for the installation and operation of up to 15,000 video lottery terminals. The VLTs would have pumped money into the state's budget to the tune of at least $100 million annually and the horse racing industry would have benefited from a 9.5 percent cut of gross gaming revenues from slot facilities to bolster shriveling purse funds and breeders' incentives. But in February of 2009, Magna missed the deadline to pay $28.5 million in bidding fees for the rights to install slots at Laurel. One month later, citing losses of more than $600 million in seven years, the corporation went bankrupt.

It looked as though Pimlico and Laurel would be sold to the highest bidder while courts dissolved Magna's assets in order to pay its' creditors. And the potential auctioning of the tracks could have actually been a good thing, a shift of control from the bankrupt owners to a party with a new vision for racing in the state. Instead, MEC managed to have the auction postponed until a plan of reorganization could be filed. According to the plan, Magna's parent company, the Canada-based MI Developments (MID), will pay $89 million to settle a lawsuit filed by an unsecured creditors committee: about $13 million to cover secured claims of PNC Bank, about $6 million to holders of unsecured claims against the Jockey Club, and $5 million to the former owners of Laurel Park and Pimlico.

135th Preakness Stakes


MID is a real estate operating company engaged primarily in the acquisition, development, construction, leasing, management and ownership of a predominantly industrial rental portfolio leased primarily to Magna International Inc. and its automotive operating units in North America and Europe. On May 7, 2010, the company announced a joint venture with Penn National to own and operate the Maryland Jockey Club. The agreement also means that Penn will back lobbying efforts to defeat slots at Arundel Mills mall in November, which in turn could facilitate slots at Laurel again. A hitch, however, lies in the fact that Penn already holds a slot license in Cecil County, and Maryland law prohibits one company from holding two licenses. In order to install slots at the racetrack, some legal wrangling would have to be made.

There are those who believe the MID buyout is disastrous.

"The pledges of a new vision for horse racing rang hollow after the first incarnation of Magna failed to make good on the same promises," Andy Green of The Baltimore Sun opined on May 7. "The announcement ... that Penn National Gaming is entering a joint venture ... shouldn't come as much comfort."

Others are hopeful.

"The new owners of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park envision another golden age of horse racing in Maryland -- believing they can polish the Preakness and transform the tracks into profitable enterprises with bigger betting pots and new retail and entertainment venues on the land surrounding the fading operations," The Sun's Andrea Walker wrote.

For better or worse, the buyout means one essential thing -- that the state's storied race will be protected, in all likelihood, at least for another several years. Wanting to convey this reassurance, in spite of questions and potential shortcomings, officials rushed to complete the agreement and announce details of the plan before this year's Preakness. They hoped fans and industry members in attendance on Saturday would appreciate their display of dedication to the racing industry in Maryland. In reality, a large percentage of those fans won't see more than the corporate villas and beer tents of the Preakness infield.

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"Getcha freak on ... getcha getcha freak on ... "

The lyrics from this lascivious hip-hop song, written in 2001 by American rapper Missy Elliott in conjunction with Timbaland, would be a suitable enough theme for the Preakness infield, that debaucherous scene of mud-sliding drunken revelry that has long been a part of Baltimore legend and subject of the Maryland Jockey Club's disdain. The powers that be made an effort to clean up the infield last year by preventing fans from bringing their own alcohol, but fell victim to severe consequences as the college students who usually came in from surrounding states staged a boycott. Attendance dropped 31 percent to 77,850, the lowest mark since 1983.

With that valued lesson in mind, the Jockey Club offered a compromise. This year revelers still can't bring their own beer, but for the purchase of a $20 mug, it's all-you-can-drink all day long. Individual beers are also cheaper, from $3.50 to $3, and the price of admission has been dropped from $50 last year to $40.

The lyrics to Elliott's song also became inspiration of sorts for a controversial ad campaign -- as signs and radio spots around the city encouraged potential racegoers to "Get Your Preak On." The campaign, which has been labeled as raunchy, distasteful and inappropriate by members of the local and national media, is working nonetheless. Officials have reported a 25 percent increase in ticket sales, and the campaign's website, GetYourPreakOn.com, is exceeding 32,000 hits per week. For the infield, at least, it looks like it'll be "party on."

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Saturday, although the majority of those infield revelers will be relatively oblivious to the fact, Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver will take on 11 other contenders in pursuit of a shot at the Triple Crown. The Todd Pletcher trainee arrived at Pimlico on Wednesday and was bedded down in Stall 40 of the Stakes Barn, the traditional place offered to the Derby winner. On Wednesday afternoon, he drew post No. 8.

Among those attempting to take him on are his own stablemate, Aikenite, a runner who bypassed the Derby in favor of this race. He'll start from the rail. Beside that one is Schoolyard Dreams, trained by Derek Ryan, who has been on the bench since running fourth in the Wood Memorial. Fanning outward are 20-1 shot Pleasant Prince, D. Wayne Lukas's second-stringer Northern Giant, Yawanna Twist (longest shot in the field at 30-1), Nick Zito trainee Jackson Bend, the not-so-lucky Lookin at Lucky, California shipper Caracortado, third-place Derby finisher Paddy O'Prado and his stablemate, First Dude.

Of these, five -- Aikenite, Caracortado, First Dude, Pleasant Prince, Schoolyard Dreams, and Yawanna Twist -- bypassed the Derby. Rest is a distinct advantage, especially just two weeks out from the first Saturday in May. But those connections who enter the Preakness out of the Derby -- Super Saver, Dublin, Jackson Bend, Lookin at Lucky, Northern Giant, Paddy O'Prado -- are confident in their horses, in their chances, in their training methods.

The thing about the Preakness is, if you're not the Derby winner, it's just another horse race.

Before arriving at Pimlico on Monday evening, Hall of Fame trainers Lukas and Bob Baffert went to dinner.

"Hell," Lukas told Baffert as he contemplated the chances of his other starter, Dublin. "We're just going to go in there and have a good time in Baltimore, and enjoy it like we always do."

"Why not?" agreed Baffert, who has nothing to lose with Lookin at Lucky. "What else are we going to do with them? It's five weeks until Belmont anyway."

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If returning horsemen are relaxed and appreciative approaching the Preakness, those of us who arrive as pure observers are that and much more. Of course, things change in a year. We are warier, more experienced. We are optimistic, but not starry-eyed. Still, at Pimlico, the tangible things haven't changed, and likely never will. The elevator to the press box has been broken since Tuesday. The smell of fresh paint coated over old layers wafts through the grandstand.

In a way, our view of Pimlico and the Preakness mirrors our opinion of the entire racing industry. This track, this race, this day, survives because of profit-making powers, because of prominence. That's pretty much how the sport continues, buoyed by three classics and a handful of other important events and the occasional appearance of phenomenally talented runners. Year after year we keep showing up, amazed that we've made it, amazed that the game has made it. We stand, as the Preakness stands: bolstered by tradition, alternately helped and hindered by politics, up or down depending on the economy, drifting along in life's ebb and flow.

As always in racing, hope springs eternal. That's why we're waiting for Saturday, when the winner of Kentucky Derby No. 136 will "go busting" past the infield and come winging down off the final turn. Pimlico. Preakness. 2010. By Jove, we've made it -- again.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.