The Preakness Stakes has a 135-year tradition of producing not just a winning horse but a winning politician — Maryland's governor, who gets a brief moment in the national spotlight awarding the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown.
Saturday was no exception, and Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has been an attending dignitary for more than a decade, first as Baltimore mayor, said he felt an even deeper sense of pride this year. "It's the first time I can remember coming here without the cloud hanging over my head about whether Preakness will be here next year," he said.
O'Malley was referring to an agreement between the state and Pimlico's new owners, MI Developments Inc., that guarantees that the race stays where it is as the previous track owner emerges from bankruptcy. NBC's Bob Costas made a reference to the end of the threat of the Preakness leaving Baltimore as he introduced O'Malley on national television. The governor told Costas that he felt "great" that the risk "of the possibility of the Preakness leaving in the middle of the night has passed."
Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said he felt more confident this year, too. "Preakness belongs in Maryland," he said. "The powers that be in Annapolis and at MID realize that."
Earlier, the Democratic governor made his way through the grandstand, shaking hands with people he hopes will vote for him in the fall. He toured the stables before the main event, making small talk with the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. And he hobnobbed with other politicians and officials in the corporate tent area.
O'Malley's likely opponent this fall, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., did not attend, saying a few days ago that he wasn't invited. "Preakness is the greatest day to be governor," he said, remembering his four years in office.
But Ehrlich's absence doesn't mean the topics of the horse-racing industry and its companion slot-machine gambling will be absent from the governor's race. Ehrlich and O'Malley both predicted they'll be talking about it.
Ehrlich, whose effort as governor to legalize slots was blocked by the Democrat-controlled legislature, has said O'Malley failed to get a gambling program up and running. After voter approval in a fall 2008 referendum, two of the smaller casinos could open this fall, but larger ones could be years away. Some slots proceeds would be used to increase racing purses, helping the horse-racing industry.
On Saturday, O'Malley defended his efforts to help racing, saying he is "looking forward to a conversation about what I did in a four-year period versus the previous four years."
The governor spent much of the afternoon in the swankier half of the infield, where one can occasionally hear, but not see, drunken revelers on the other side.
Preakness draws as many politicians and business bigwigs as it does horse-racing aficionados. Politicians even took to the sky this year. Infielders could look up and see an airplane banner urging them to vote for state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.
Diplomats joined the mix this year in an international tent. Spanish Ambassador Jorge Dezcallar played host to other ambassadors and Marylanders.
State Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, called Preakness one of the state's highlights. He said the state's contractual agreement to retain Preakness "certainly helps," but this year's good turnout does more to ensure the race's future.
Also mixing it up in the corporate area was Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who in her first year as mayor presented a trophy in one of the races preceding the Preakness Stakes. The usual political companions also flitted about in the fashionable tents — from Baltimore AFSCME President Glen Middleton to lobbyist and former O'Malley aide Josh White.
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.