Preakness contender Classic Empire gallops on the track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Thursday. ASSOCIATED PRESS
BALTIMORE — The Preakness is about Saturday's race, but not until everybody is finished fussing about the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Triple Crown, the crumbling Pimlico facilities, the heat, the newcomers, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Let’s begin where everything begins in horse racing — with the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is a colossal eruption of athleticism and sound, the one day on the racing calendar when 20 horses jostle for position into the first turn like power forwards scrambling to rebound that last shot.
The Derby can be cruel and unfair. Ask Classic Empire. Or ask Todd Pletcher, who trained Always Dreaming, the Derby winner. Pletcher has watched the replay of horses getting bounced outside the Derby starting gate.
The Belmont is a marathon. Who wants to run a mile-and-a-half? Nobody. A few horses will handle that assignment.
The Preakness? It’s simply a horse race, probably the fairest test of running ability of the Triple Crown races. On Saturday the field will be half of the Derby's 20. The distance is a sixteenth-of-a-mile less than the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter.
So what is there to fuss about at Pimlico?
The Preakness is the only event where it is recommended you bring your own Port-a-Pot, hand sanitizer, and portable generator. Vegas put the odds at 9-2 that Pimlico will finish the day without running water or electricity.
“People have been writing [about the future of the race at] Pimlico since 1959,” a veteran Preakness observer said Thursday morning at the Alibi Breakfast, an event the track uses to publicize its signature race.
Keep it at Pimlico or move it to Laurel, Maryland's premier racing facility, or turn the Triple Crown upside down by putting the second leg in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami (Yes, PLEASE!).
Maryland government officials say the race isn’t going anywhere, even though Pimlico honchos argued that the facilities need a — gulp — $300 million-to-$500 million rebuild to stay in the entertainment game on the third Saturday in May.
Mandatory public service announcement: The third Saturday in May is 1/12th of Pimlico's yearly racing calendar. The owners recently pumped $35 million into Laurel with the hopes of attracting the Breeders' Cup. At Laurel, they race 150 days a year.
This political tug-of-war about the future of the Preakness has been raging since I started covering this race more than three decades ago. Pimlico still looks like a place Secretariat and Citation would recognize if they could attend Saturday’s race.
The race itself deserves discussion, starting with the fundamental handicapping question: Is Always Dreaming still the horse that was nearly three lengths better than runner-up Lookin At Lee and at least seven lengths better than everybody else?
“He’s doing fantastic,” Pletcher said. “We’ve got a special horse.
“The quick turnaround is the obvious difference [from the Derby]. You’re coming back in 14 days from the Kentucky Derby, which can be a very demanding race … the horse is fit and ready. It’s about keeping him fueled up and ready to go. Keep him happy.”
If Pletcher is correct, Always Dreaming will crackle to Belmont like American Pharoah, California Chrome, and I’ll Have Another, the last three runners to energize horse racing by taking a live Triple Crown opportunity to New York City.
Pletcher’s Preakness record is 0-8, with only a single third-place finish. Jockey John Velasquez is 0-7. The trainer and jockey were a combined 2-for-63 before they scored in the Derby.
A closer look at the Derby showed that Classic Empire was compromised by traffic circumstances that existed at the Derby but should not be an issue Saturday. The Derby winner will start in post four, Classic Empire just to his right.
“Classic Empire being the 2-year-old champ and having a troubled trip, you have to worry about him,” Pletcher said.
It’s more fun than worrying about the future of Pimlico — again.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and television station WDRB in Louisville. Rick Bozich writes for WDRB.com.