A look at Preakness Day at Pimlico in Baltimore as American Pharoah wins the second jewel of the Triple Crown. A storm just before the start made it soggy. (ChristopherT. Assaf/Baltimore Sun video)
American Pharoah swept to a commanding victory — and kept alive hopes for an elusive Triple Crown — as Baltimore eagerly embraced the 140th Preakness' boisterous daylong festivities, which came less than three weeks after the city was torn by riots and looting.
Amid a sudden rainstorm and lightning warnings that prompted officials to begin clearing the infield and part of the grandstand, American Pharoah led throughout the muddy race and pulled away from the small field of seven other horses in front of a record crowd of 131,680. His seven-length win — after his win in the Kentucky Derby on May 2 — gave racing fans hope for the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
The race, held on a Saturday that started out sunny and warm, provided a respite for Baltimore, which was staggered following the April 27 funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who died of injuries sustained while in police custody. Some of the rioting in West Baltimore occurred less than four miles away from Pimlico Race Course, the home of the Preakness.
Racing officials had said for weeks that they expected the Preakness to go on as scheduled — and it did, with the usual blazers and sundresses, fancy hats and cigars. Hanging over the race was the possibility it could be moved to Laurel Park and run on a Sunday in subsequent years.
Track officials did "meet a little more than usual" to discuss security matters but reported no unusual concerns, said Sal Sinatra, general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks. The Preakness attracted more than $2 million in corporate sponsorship and had no more room for hospitality tents, organizers said.
Some reminders of Gray — and the unrest that followed his death — were mixed in with the celebratory mood.
Along the track, a banner read "One Baltimore," a reference to an initiative created by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to help the city recover.
Rawlings-Blake said before the big race, while the sun was still shining, "Like me, the rest of the city is ready to exhale and enjoy what we love about our city."
"What a day for Baltimore. They really needed this after all they've been through," said Bob Baffert, American Pharoah's trainer.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a candidate for retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's seat in 2016, called the race "the essence of Maryland," while adding, "but I want to stress this is just one day. We have serious problems facing Baltimore and the nation."
Fans seemed to be defiantly seeking a return to normal.
Fifteen days earlier, Jay Pivec, 50 — an Orioles season-plan holder — had been sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon when he should have been at Camden Yards. Amid the unrest, the team postponed two games, barred fans from attending another and switched a home series against the Tampa Bay Rays to St. Petersburg, Fla.
Pivec, who was wearing an orange Orioles jersey on Saturday, said he was gratified to be back out in a crowd.
He said sports — and especially the Orioles — can help bring the city together. "But if the Orioles keep playing like they're playing, then maybe not," he said wryly, referring to their last-place position in the American League East division.
There was ominous thunder, fog and lightning before the race. Officials ordered that the open area of the grandstand and the infield be cleared.
Diane Heil of Annapolis, who grew up in a horse racing family, was concerned that the horses stayed on the track before the race.
"I'm kind of upset they left the horses in the elements, but brought us inside," she said. "If it's not safe for us it's not safe for them. But I'm absolutely glad I came. Hopefully we witnessed history, if the horse wins again."
Baffert said of the storm, "I've never been through anything like that. That was crazy. They showed a picture of the track with a river running through the rail."
On June 6, his horse will have a chance to race in the Belmont Stakes and take racing's Triple Crown.
Jockey Victor Espinoza will get an improbable third shot at the Triple Crown. His horse War Emblem stumbled early in the 2002 Belmont Stakes, after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and never recovered position. Last year, he rode California Chrome to victories in the first two legs before failing at the Belmont.
In the more sedate corporate village, the vast Under Armour tent attracted much of the star power.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, wearing a cherry-red blazer, was among those hosted by the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company, as was skier Lindsey Vonn, in a long dress with a dramatic back cutout.
Also in the Under Armour tent were South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier, Gary Williams and Mark Turgeon — the former and current University of Maryland basketball coaches — and hairy "Duck Dynasty" stars Justin Martin and Jeff Robertson. A band played loudly, while some guests lounged on Adirondack chairs arrayed between the tent and the track.
A few glitches marred the day. A water pipe burst in late afternoon, shutting down water to some of the grandstand. Long lines formed at working restrooms.
Racing fans and politicians seemed to be leaning on the comfort of tradition — the presenting of the sparkling Woodlawn Vase and flowers to the winning racing team, the painting of the Preakness weathervane atop the cupola in the winning horse and jockey's colors.
Rawlings-Blake said she hoped national audiences were seeing the real Baltimore on Saturday, rather than the devastating images of the fires, looting and confrontations with police that erupted after Gray's funeral.
"We kept saying over and over, the images [the national media] ran on a continuous loop are not the Baltimore that we know and love," she said. "It's not our great city."
Gov. Larry Hogan, who declared a state of emergency and sent the National Guard to Baltimore, seemed to want to focus Saturday on the festive day at the track.
"I couldn't be prouder of us for hosting the 140th Preakness Stakes," said Hogan, who took office in January.
Hovering over the event was the possibility that the Preakness could move out of Baltimore.
Meeting with reporters, Sinatra said officials were exploring Pimlico renovations — while considering moving the race to Laurel Park, which is between Baltimore and Washington, and holding it on a Sunday.
"This building is old, you can't just add suites and stuff to it," he said of Pimlico, which opened in 1870. "It's almost a rebuild here, where Laurel's a pretty healthy building. Laurel you can renovate. Right now, I'd say Laurel's in the lead if there was only going to be one."
He said the plan was to create something "grand" for Maryland racing.
Racing enthusiasts, horsemen and city officials have waited years for Pimlico and Laurel to be renovated. A Maryland Racing Commission report to the General Assembly said earlier this year the jockey club "will soon announce a major capital program for Pimlico and Laurel Park, with a budget of $250 million."
Sinatra said it was premature to discuss a price tag.
Jimmy Garcia, 56, and his wife, Nydia, 53, who live in Fredericksburg, Va., watched from under a stairwell as the rain continued to fall and a bolt of lightning struck.
They were joined by Mary Beth Friedel, 54, of Pasadena, whom they've become Preakness friends with after sharing adjoining seats in Section 8 of the apron boxes near the finish line. The Garcias have been coming since 1992, Friedel even longer — since 1988.
"It's just so exciting, all the pageantry and the flowers and everything Maryland," Friedel said. "I wouldn't miss it.
"Sometimes it's been freezing cold, earlier today we were dripping with sweat," she said. "But this one is special because we have a chance at the Triple Crown."
It wasn't the most comfortable Preakness, they acknowledged.
"A couple things put a damper on it: the bathrooms," Jimmy Garcia said, noting the water supply issue that left people in search of a working restroom. "And the rain."
"And the $65 I paid to park," Friedel said, "two miles away."
Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Meredith Cohn and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.