Can horse-racing bottle the Preakness? Triple Crown: Sport has plenty of drama and strategy to engage fans, as past week at Pimlico shows.


IF YOU could bottle "Preakness Week" -- the hoopla and anticipation that accompanies the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown -- horse-racing, and Maryland's $1 billion horse industry in particular, would be just fine.

Of course, that's a little like saying network TV would be doing splendidly if it simply had a "Seinfeld finale" every week.

In truth, however, racing promoters should do some self-examination these weeks when their sport enjoys such high profile.

The drama at Pimlico in the week leading to today's 123rd running of the Preakness, and the homage paid to the late Secretariat on the silver anniversary of his legendary Triple Crown, would lead a casual observer to wonder why the sport struggles to regain its past status.

You want emotion?

The colt that placed fourth in the Kentucky Derby, Halory Hunter, suffered a life-threatening, career-ending injury in practice, shattering a leg on a soupy track. His trainer, Nick Zito, grieved at having run his horse that dawn.

You want competition?

Trainer Bob Baffert withdrew Indian Charlie, a possible Preakness favorite that came in third in the Derby, after lackluster workouts in Kentucky. Can you imagine Orioles manager Ray Miller benching a starter for the World Series because he hadn't shown sufficient zest in practice?

You want personality?

You can get that from four-legged creatures, too. Coronado's Quest was held out of the Kentucky Derby due to disobedience. He has been described as the equine Dennis Rodman (and not because of his two-toned coat). He's favored today over Kentucky Derby champion Real Quiet.

(You want humor? Racing offers that, too, with Maryland's governor warning that his opponents might mar the "family atmosphere" with their campaign literature. The semi-clad infield crowd would have to agree.)

The "sport of kings" has floundered despite the fact that gambling and sports have mushroomed in profits and popularity, most importantly among young audiences. Even the much-discussed slot machines at the tracks seem more Band-Aid than cure.

One key to success for these other entertainment forms is their cultivation of the aura of an "event." Only the most avid Baltimore baseball fan, for example, can recall the score of a game from three Tuesdays ago, but the marketing, media coverage and fan interest in the 24 hours preceding that and every other game on the long schedule create an impression that something important is to occur. Perhaps a clue to revitalizing horse-racing lays right under the industry's nose today.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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