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Rain to pour on Black-Eyed Susan, but sun expected to come out for Preakness

The deluge forecast to soak the region Friday could make for a soggy, miserable Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico Race Course — though officials remain confident in a fast track for a sunny and cool Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

A cold front was expected to bring storms overnight and into Friday morning, followed by a moisture-laden low pressure system, according to the National Weather Service. Heavy downpours are expected to dump 2-3 inches of rain, with higher amounts in some areas, flooding streams and small rivers, with a flood warning in effect through Friday afternoon.

That much rain could diminish crowds on what is typically Pimlico's second-busiest day of the year, turning its turf track and infield into a sloppy mess, though Black-Eyed Susan events are scheduled to go on, rain or shine. And a muddy infield could meet revelers Saturday.

But Art Sherman, trainer for Preakness favorite California Chrome, was not upset by the forecast. The Kentucky Derby champion will gallop Friday morning, regardless of conditions, he said.

"He needs his exercise, and the track is not going to be a factor," Sherman said. "God, I can't tell you the muddy tracks I've trained on — lightning, thunder, it's just part of the game. The elements are the elements. You have to just go for it."

At Pimlico, the 90th Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and its infield festival, headlined by Counting Crows, will go ahead, regardless of weather, said Maryland Jockey Club spokesman Mike Gathagan. The Black-Eyed Susan drew 38,957 fans in 2013, easily the second-largest crowd of the year at Pimlico.

Other Friday events including a Zumba exercise class, national anthem performance and the trophy presentation for the Black-Eyed Susan, scheduled for the ornate cupola in the Pimlico infield, have been canceled or moved, Gathagan said.

The greatest impacts could be on the day's six turf races. A wet track can slow horses' times, and a sloppy track often leads to unpredictable results, because some horses aren't used to the conditions or are uncomfortable.

If rainfall is as heavy as is expected, some of the turf races could be moved to the race course's dirt track, which is packed down by tractors ahead of rain to prevent it from getting too sloppy, said Gabby Gaudet, handicapper at Pimlico and Laurel race tracks. While the turf along the homestretch was recently replaced and can handle rain well, the backstretch could be more of a mess, she said.

"It would be pretty tough to run some of the races on the turf if we're expecting as much rain as they're saying we're going to get on Friday," Gaudet said. "I hope we don't get that much. [But] I don't think we're going to miss it."

But with rain forecast to taper off by Friday afternoon and mostly sunny skies Saturday, the tracks should dry out quickly, officials said. If that forecast holds, the track will be fast by the 6:18 p.m. post time for Preakness, Gathagan said.

How muddy the infield gets depends on how much rain falls, and how fast, said Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club. Sump pumps have been strategically placed and drains cleared in preparation for the weather, he said, and most of the infield has been covered with sod, helping to prevent mud.

"The infield tends to drain pretty well," Chuckas said. "If you get 2-3 inches, that's a different story."

Away from Pimlico, the rain and storms could have other impacts.

William Johnson, the city's transportation director, said Thursday that crews working to restore East 26th Street in Charles Village after a major retaining wall collapse during torrential rains April 30 were taking extra precautions to ensure that the coming rains wouldn't further damage the street.

"We're very concerned about that," Johnson said.

The cause of the initial collapse is still under investigation, but heavy rains in the days prior to the collapse are believed to have been a major factor.

Crews have been busy since last week installing pilings into the street to hold it and the homes along it in place above the railroad tracks, onto which the original retaining wall collapsed. Of 65 pilings that will ultimately be installed, 13 are in place and another 13 holes are drilled. Crews were ready to cap the unfilled holes to prevent them from filling with water, Johnson said.

Heavy machinery will be moved off areas of the street that haven't been reinforced, and plastic sheeting has been placed over the wall of exposed dirt where the original retaining wall once stood, Johnson said.

Crews will continue to monitor the site through Friday for any signs of movement, he said

Meanwhile, the annual Bike to Work Day festivities scheduled for Friday, sponsored by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, were canceled because of safety concerns, the organization said.

The State Highway Administration cautioned drivers to avoid areas where streams and rivers may crest and flow onto roadways.

So far this year, more than 21 inches of rain has fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. With Friday's forecast, 2014 is on pace to be among Baltimore's top 10 wettest years on record.

About three-quarters of an inch of rain has fallen this month at the airport, and Friday's rain could push that total close to or above normal May rainfall of about 4 inches.

The weather can always be a factor at Preakness, though the race itself has been mostly dry since at least 2009. Partly cloudy skies and highs in the lower 70s are forecast for Saturday.

In 2003, several inches of rain similarly threatened to have a say in the Preakness, with a Kentucky Derby winner's trainer dismissing the weather as a factor. Derby champ and Preakness favorite Funny Cide came to Pimlico a day early because of possible weather-related travel disruptions, but trainer Barclay Tagg said the horse could handle anything.

That he did, winning by a commanding 93/4-length margin.

But when heavy rain preceded the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid died in the mud there.

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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