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Preakness 2015:

A potentially thrilling Preakness nears, just in time

Baltimore will be in the spotlight for a good reason during Preakness Week.

When American Pharoah charged home at the head of a heart-stopping three-horse finish in this month's Kentucky Derby, the buzz went way beyond the usual can-he-do-it Triple Crown speculation.

Sure, the horse has a chance to make history. That comes automatically with a successful run for the roses at Churchill Downs.

The real question was whether the top challengers would follow Pharoah to Baltimore and create the possibility of a truly legendary Triple Crown series.

Of course, a Triple Crown winner is a rare thing regardless. There hasn't been one since Affirmed in 1978 and winning all three jewels has become more difficult as the owners of premier Derby also-rans have increasingly chosen to bypass the Preakness and rest their horses for the Belmont Stakes.

Not this year. The three California horses that battled down the stretch in Kentucky are back with a chance to turn this Triple Crown series into one for the ages.

It will be a special day at Pimlico Race Course if American Pharoah follows up on his impressive performance. Firing Line and Dortmund do not guarantee a dramatic Derby redux, but the presence of several high-quality challengers could take the race — and the series — to a level that might allow it to live in memory alongside some of the horseracing rivalries of the past.

Okay, we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Preakness Week is just getting underway and there are all sorts of fun and interesting things that are going to take place before Saturday's big race. The featured horses are set to arrive Wednesday and the post position draw will take place that night.

There's the famous Alibi Breakfast on Thursday and Black-Eyed Susan Day on Friday, so there'll be plenty of buildup without having to project this thing all they way out to the first Saturday in June in Elmont, N.Y.

The fact that the owners of Firing Line and Dortmund felt compelled to bring their terrific horses to Baltimore to stage a rematch of such an exciting Kentucky Derby works for Baltimore on a number of levels, including the one that has consumed the attention of the rest of the nation for the past two weeks.

From a national image standpoint, Preakness week couldn't have come at a better time for a city ravaged by the civil unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

The last sporting event here to get big national publicity was the April 29 no-fan game at Camden Yards, which had to send a message to the rest of the country that Baltimore was not a safe place to stay and play.

Things have calmed down considerably since then, and Preakness officials do not expect any unusual security issues for Pimlico Race Course's two biggest race days of the year. So, if all goes well, the sports world will get to see a much different Baltimore than it witnessed from afar on the day the Orioles played to an empty house.

Whether American Pharoah will take the next step toward the first Triple Crown in 37 years is far from certain. He came out of the 18th post position to win the Derby against stiff competition — which is no small feat — but it was not his most impressive performance. So, there will be plenty of strategic intrigue for the hardcore racing enthusiasts.

The casual fans who flock to the year's biggest single sporting event in the region will largely be focused on whether Pharoah is going to be headed to the Belmont with a chance to win it all.

If so, it'll be a great thing for horseracing and a suiting followup to California Chrome's unrequited quest last year, though Pharoah's connections will be hard-pressed to put on the show that folksy Chrome owner Steve Coburn provided (for better and worse) after his horse won the Preakness and lost the Belmont.

Coburn complained bitterly after his chance to win the Triple Crown fell victim to two horses (winner Tonalist and place horse Commissioner) that had not run in either previous Triple Crown race and a show horse (Medal Count) that ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness.

That kind of scenario is still possible, but the cream of the Derby field will be in Baltimore this week to assure that Pharoah earns his shot at history. What happens after that is a story for another day.

This week belongs to Baltimore and it couldn't have gotten here soon enough.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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