Event enjoying a great run

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland horse racing produces its share of depressing headlines as the political stalemate over slots continues, the future of the Preakness Stakes is debated, and more of the state's breeders and horsemen contemplate leaving.

But there is a positive development amid the negativity, and it is on display today at Pimlico Race Course: The Preakness is booming like never before.

The Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees the state's racing franchise, might struggle the rest of the year, but it excels on the third Saturday in May.

"They do a hell of a job here. No one does it better," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has competed in the Preakness since 1980 and won it five times.

Attendance is soaring; the Preakness had never drawn as many as 100,000 fans until 1999, but it has since attracted six-figure crowds in seven of the past eight years. Last year's record crowd of 118,402, which fell eerily quiet when the ill-fated colt Barbaro broke his leg, represented an increase of almost 30,000 fans from the then-record crowd of 88,594 that gathered in 1997.

The amount of money bet - another barometer of the race's health - is also soaring. The record for Preakness Day wagering was established in 2004 when $87.9 million was put on the line, representing a staggering increase from just six years earlier, when $37.6 million was bet. Last year's total was $87.5 million.

"I didn't realize the numbers had jumped that much," said retired racing broadcaster Charlsie Cantey, who lives in Maryland and worked 20 straight Preaknesses beginning in 1985. "I'm not entirely sure what is causing it. Maybe it's a sense of 'It's not going to be here long, so we need to enjoy it while it's here.' I hope not."

Lou Raffetto, the jockey club's president and chief operating officer, said the soaring attendance was attributable partly to increased marketing efforts and also partly to the popularity of the infield party scene, which attracts 60,000 people, some of whom never see a horse.

Also, Raffetto claimed, the rise of telephone and Internet wagering has encouraged many fans to watch the races from home on a daily basis, leaving them eager to get out of the house and to the track when a big event comes along.

"That's where the sports psyche of the country is today, no question about it. We love big events," Raffetto said. "My brother-in-law never goes to the track, but when something big is happening in racing, he loves to be there to see it. I think a lot of people feel the same way."

Keith Chamblin, executive vice president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, agreed: "We're seeing a trend at racetracks across the country where there's an emphasis on the premier events. People want to be part of something special."

The MJC needs to squeeze every dime it can out of the Preakness, because the event is one profitable day of racing and pays for the rest of the year at Pimlico and Laurel Race Course. The MJC spends more every year on marketing the Preakness, Raffetto said, and now targets customers who want high-end premium seats, which didn't exist a decade ago.

The second jewel of the Triple Crown has become so popular, Raffetto said, that there isn't room at Pimlico for many more new customers.

"We're close to capacity," Raffetto said. "It's almost to the point where, if we added more fans on Preakness Day, it would be, 'Where are we going to put them?"'

With that in mind, it is hard to imagine the race leaving Pimlico after 132 years, but its departure became a more realistic scenario when Magna Entertainment Corp., a Canadian firm, purchased Pimlico and Laurel in 2002. Magna owns other major tracks such as Gulfstream Park in South Florida, Lone Star Park in Texas and Santa Anita Park in California - all possible destinations if Maryland's racing prospects ever sank so low that moving the Preakness became necessary.

Magna founder Frank Stronach has consistently said he is firmly committed to keeping the race at Pimlico. Nonetheless, the rumor persists.

Some insiders have a hard time believing that the Preakness will ever move, especially now that it is faring so well. Lukas said the event wouldn't have the same feeling or tradition at another venue, and wouldn't be as big.

"The only way I see the Preakness leaving Baltimore is if they closed Pimlico, and I just don't see that happening," Lukas said.

Lukas added that the nation's top horsemen love coming to Baltimore because they're treated so well at Pimlico.

"They're the best hosts we've got," Lukas said. "They go the extra mile for us here more than any place else. At Churchill Downs, they tolerate us, and New York doesn't give a hoot. But Baltimore bends over backwards to make us happy."

The perception that the Preakness might be cursed has arisen in the wake of Barbaro's injury, a 1998 race-day power outage and the bizarre 1999 incident in which an inebriated fan ran in front of oncoming horses during a race several hours before the Preakness. Conditions at Pimlico, at best a rusty relic, don't help.

But, in fact, the Preakness has soldiered through all that and a downturn in Maryland racing, and has become the second-largest day of racing in North America, behind only the Kentucky Derby, which has surpassed 150,000 fans in six of the past nine years.

The Belmont Stakes also draws large crowds when a Triple Crown is at stake, and the Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies run at Churchill Downs the day before the Derby, has drawn 100,000 fans, but the Preakness is consistently drawing more.

"It doesn't happen by accident, I can tell you that," Raffetto said. "A lot of thought and hard work goes into this. Given the issues we're dealing with in Maryland on a daily basis, it's nice to see the kind of results we're getting."


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