Eye of the storm

The Baltimore Sun

This might be hard for you to remember with everything that's going on these days, but there was a time when the Preakness was just a famous horse race that drew thousands of revelers to Pimlico and set one Saturday aside each year for Baltimore to be the center of the sporting universe.

It was a day for sun dresses and pretty hats and ice-cold black-eyed Susans ... and the only day of the year when a Roland Park swell in $300 shoes might seek out some ragged-looking soul in a faded fedora and ask, "Whaddaya think?"

Now, I think not.

The race is still the race, of course, but the event and the racing industry appear to be at a crossroads where wildly divergent social and political interests have come together to debate the future and propriety of the erstwhile Sport of Kings.

In other words, when prohibitive favorite Big Brown breaks from the gate in quest of the second gemstone in racing's Triple Crown, there will be a lot more riding on him than jockey Kent Desormeaux and a huge chunk of the afternoon's pari-mutuel handle.

The conversation over the economic future of horse racing has been going on for a long time in Maryland, and it should come to a head soon with the introduction of slot machines at some tracks subject to a voter referendum in November. Meanwhile, the death of Eight Belles, the runner-up at the Kentucky Derby, has put the Preakness back in the middle of a more emotional debate about the care and treatment of the animals at the various levels of the racing industry.

No one should be surprised that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals jumped at the opportunity to exploit the Eight Belles situation for maximum publicity, or that the organization played fast and loose with the facts in its rush to a judgment about the tragedy that supported its agenda. It's important to note that the group crusades for the ethical treatment of animals but apparently feels no obligation to act ethically in its public flogging of the people who also were scarred by the incident.

And while you're busy not being surprised, you also shouldn't be when PETA protesters show up Saturday at Pimlico looking for some network coverage.

Don't misunderstand. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about breeding and safety issues, but it's hard to have that discussion when somebody is throwing red paint on you or trumpeting the convenient mythology that coldhearted trainers and jockeys can't wait to truck their horses off to make glue and dog food. If PETA really wanted to make a dent in Maryland racing, the group ought to spend its entire advertising budget trying to kill the slots referendum.

Pimlico remains at the center of the slots debate, even though Old Hilltop has been removed from the list of locations that would get slot machines under the plan that will be on the November ballot. One of the long-standing arguments against slots is the negative impact increased gambling supposedly would have on the neighborhoods around the tracks, though that didn't stop legislators from allowing lottery locations in low-income areas.

The Preakness is the jewel of Maryland's racing calendar, and it also is the vehicle by which Maryland racing reaches a mainstream audience once a year, so the success of the event will have an impact on the referendum. That's why the Eight Belles tragedy, coming a relatively short time after Barbaro's breakdown at the 2006 Preakness, has brought two disparate political issues - gambling and animal rights - into this strange alignment.

That said, it's still OK to focus on the fun. It's OK to head down to Lexington Market on Thursday for the Preakness Crab Derby, or to take part in one of the other Preakness Week events.

For one week each year, the nation gets to see Baltimore close-up without having to watch reruns of Homicide: Life on the Street or The Wire.

This year, there are a few extra layers of meaning, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have a great time.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Saturdays and Sundays.

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