Despite doubts about race's future at Pimlico, record crowd turns out for Preakness

The Preakness Stakes, Maryland's biggest and splashiest party, returned Saturday even as wistful fans in a record crowd of 140,327 wondered whether they were witnessing one of the last editions of the marquee event at 147-year-old Pimlico Race Course.

The Canadian firm that owns the historic venue in Northwest Baltimore has been openly considering moving the Preakness to the track it owns in Laurel. But a racing official assured that if the Preakness leaves Baltimore, it won't be abruptly.

"All I keep telling everybody is, 'We're not the Baltimore Colts,'" Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra said. The beloved football team broke the city's heart 33 years ago when it fled for Indianapolis in the dead of night.

Cloud Computing captured the 142nd Preakness by a head over Classic Empire. Always Dreaming, the Kentucky Derby winner, faded to an eighth-place finish in the 10-horse field to end its Triple Crown bid.

Sinatra, who oversees Pimlico and Laurel Park, and fans said they couldn't shake the sense they were nearing the end of an era. The age of the track makes it difficult to maintain — it's been patched together with mismatched materials and colors — and the Stronach Group has increasingly shifted its resources to Laurel Park, 28 miles away.

"Every time I come here myself, you feel melancholy," Sinatra said. "You feel the history — I get that."

To many, the appeal of the Preakness is about tradition — trekking to Park Heights each May to welcome warm weather with cigars, fancy hats, exotic drinks and revelry in the infield.

The race's unique traditions were on display on a cool, overcast afternoon in which rain held off for the first time in three Preaknesses. There were the presenting of the sparkling Woodlawn Vase and flowers to the winning racing team, and the painting of the Preakness weathervane atop the cupola in the colors of the winning horse and jockey.

A more informal tradition was revived when two fans in the infield staged a "running of the urinals" by scampering across the tops of the portable toilets.

Still, Baltimore police said they made no arrests Saturday.

Willie Allen, 32, who came from Trinity, Ala., for the race, called Pimlico a "people's track."

"Don't kill tradition," he said. "Tradition is what it's built on; don't change it. You don't want to see it turn into a corporate event."

The cast of regular characters returning Saturday included the vendors hawking the Daily Racing Form — "All the winners are in here!"— and Marc "Shaky" Rosenberg, who sells Black-Eyed Susan drinks, loudly. Rosenberg turns heads each year as he carries a tray full of brimming drinks hawking: "Suzies! Suzies!"

"We welcome people from all over the country, from all over the world," Rosenberg said. "Give them that Baltimore experience, get their hands clapping, their toes tapping and put a smile on their face from ear to ear."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, wearing a baby-blue jacket and a hat with a Maryland flag band, gestured around at the Preakness Village as evidence of why the race should remain at Pimlico.

"Today's atmosphere is a perfect example of why we need to keep the Preakness in Baltimore," he said. "It doesn't just define Baltimore, it defines Maryland."

Davis echoed Mayor Catherine E. Pugh's words, calling the race "Baltimore's Super Bowl."

Last year's Preakness also set an attendance record with 135,256.

Much of the star power was supplied by guests of Under Armour, the Baltimore-based apparel and footwear company that uses the Preakness to showcase Baltimore — and itself.

Celebrities in attendance included actor Kevin Spacey and a long list of sports figures, including New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Seattle Seahawks running back Eddie Lacy, Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, Philadelphia Eagles receiver Torrey Smith and Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas.

It was the first Preakness for Thomas, who mingled with other athletes in the infield at the Under Armour chalet, which offered guests leather chairs, a magician doing card tricks and attendants handing out cigars.

Thomas wore a stylish blazer and pants with an artsy flower design. He said he was still learning how to bet, but that "I'm kind of good at picking out suits."

But Smith, a former Maryland Terrapin and Raven, is a Preakness veteran.

The importance of the race, he said, "goes beyond the track — it's just the way the city responds to it. I think it's great for everyone."

Under Armour billed this as "Hospitality Weekend," with a Friday night party at bucolic Sagamore Farms in Baltimore County, once owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt II and now owned by company founder and CEO Kevin Plank. The theme was "Saddle Up," and guests were encouraged to wear "country chic."

The Maryland Stadium Authority reported in February that it would take $250 million to $320 million to keep Pimlico viable.

But the Stronach Group said Pimlico needs a "complete rebuild" at a cost of $300 million to $500 million. The Ontario-based group said it isn't ruling out any options for Pimlico, but it can't afford to invest heavily in both Pimlico and Laurel.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who attended the race, and city officials say they want to see the Preakness remain in Baltimore, but it's uncertain whether enough public money will be available to make that happen.

"I'm just happy that everybody is finally talking about it," Sinatra said Saturday. "It's going to come to a head at some point later this year."

Questions about Pimlico's state have lingered for years, with track operators worrying each spring that a catastrophic problem could arise. In 2015, water pressure problems caused the toilets to stop working on Preakness day.

"It needs a haircut — maybe more," said Russell Blaaun. He said he has been traveling to the Preakness with his wife from their home in Michigan for 20 years, and he hopes to continue the tradition.

On Saturday, one of the two air-conditioning units in a section of the track populated by VIPs malfunctioned. But the other unit was operating and the temperatures outside remained unseasonably cool.

"Everything's working," Sinatra said. "The glue, the bubble gum, the duct tape — it's working."

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Don Markus contributed to this article.

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