The 143rd edition of the Preakness Stakes featured its biggest-ever infield stage, new and hulking “chalet” tents that offered towering views over the Pimlico Race Course track, and a winner that kept alive the chance of a Triple Crown in 2018.
Kentucky Derby winner Justify, who will now head to the Belmont Stakes with a chance of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since American Pharoah in 2015, made the most of the sloppy conditions.
But the day was otherwise bogged down in mud. And not just because horses were slogging through it, and concertgoers literally swimming in it. Official attendance was down 6,000 from last year’s record crowd, though hours-long lines still formed to get into the InfieldFest.
Maryland Jockey Club officials said in their clearest terms to date that this Preakness would be one of the last at Pimlico unless the state steps in to repair or replace a 148-year-old facility that was showing its age on a soggy Saturday. Water dripped from the roof of the grandstand onto the third-floor concourse, and Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the company that owns the jockey club and the track, said ceiling tiles were falling.
Ritvo suggested that the Stronach Group would prefer a race at Laurel Park, but he said the company is willing to consider the options once the state has released a study exploring the economics of keeping the race at its traditional Northwest Baltimore home.
“We’re not looking to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a facility here and continue to renovate Laurel,” Ritvo said. “I’m understanding of the city and the historical value of the race being run here. But at the same time, from a business perspective, we struggle to see why you would rebuild [Pimlico] when you have another facility [at Laurel] that you’re putting a lot of money in for day in and day out racing that actually gives a better experience.”
In conditions even worse than the wettest-ever Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, Justify held off Bravazo to remain undefeated and preserve a shot at becoming the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown. The chestnut colt trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith is now expected to run in the Belmont Stakes, the third and final jewel of the prestigious trio of races, June 9 in Elmont, N.Y.
American Pharoah was the last horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He remains the only thoroughbred to complete the Triple Crown since a trio achieved the feat in the 1970s.
After almost a week straight of rain across the region, the weather — and the mud, and the fog that rolled in before the race — had an outsized influence on this year’s Preakness, and not just because it helped prove Justify’s mettle as a “mudder.”
In the corporate village, where supermodel Chanel Iman, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis rubbed elbows, the well-heeled were struggling to keep their shoes dry.
Over toward the concert stage — which had a new design this year to offer an experience that organizers hoped would be on par with a festival like Coachella — there was no chance of staying clean.
Christopher O’Brien showed up in a white Budweiser vest, khaki shorts and boots — and eventually acquired a thick coat of mud, too.
“We did a little wrestling,” he said. The 24-year-old Sykesville man thought about cleaning up, but then decided: What would be the point?
“I might try to buy a shirt. I don’t know. I might just wear the mud.”
Conditions notwithstanding, Elisabeth Brosnan, in town from Orlando, Fla., for her fourth Preakness, was not a fan of the infield layout. In past years, there were two stages with more acts, but this time, organizers built one massive stage to improve the concert experience — and also to allow more opportunity for infield attendees to actually watch some horse races.
“It doesn’t work out well ... trying to pack everyone into one area,” Brosnan said.
She planned to return, but with grandstand tickets next time.
”We’re not doing this again,” she said. “We’re getting fancy next year.”
Behind the grandstand glass and away from the rattling bass, Andrea Cerone and friends from around Hampton and Williamsburg, Va., brought their annual Preakness picnic inside this year. They come with a group that has grown in size to 50 people, ready with their usual spread of ham, roast beef, cheese and veggies.
As the fifth race of the day finished, they watched on TV monitors, even though the finish line was a stone's throw behind them.
“We decided to bring it inside,” Cerone said. “We make the most of it.”
That included adjusting to new rules on what could and couldn't be taken into Pimlico. They were disappointed to be charged $5 for a Coke, and to sit on blankets on the floor instead of folding chairs they’ve brought in the past.
“We used to be able to bring beverages with our food, which was more fun,” Amy Fuentes said.
Outside the track, Pimlico neighbors were selling parking spaces and grilled food, as usual. But Cory Clark decided to make the most of his grandmother's house on Winner Avenue by selling what the people needed: $5 ponchos, and, after the race, maybe some hot coffee.
“I said, hold on, I can't miss that money,” he said.
Then he shouted at a passing woman — and potential customer: “Hey miss, your hair's getting wet!”
Some wanted to attend the race, but gave up as lines to get into the infield grew into a two-hour ordeal by mid-afternoon.
Amanda Bianca, a 29-year-old from Mount Airy, arrived at 2 p.m. After barely moving up in 45 minutes, she and her wife lost their patience.
“[We] couldn’t stand in a sea of people anymore and decided to leave,” she tweeted. It would have been her wife’s first Preakness, she added.
Reisterstown resident Melissa Mazur, 23, had visited Pimlico for a summertime electronic dance music event.
On Saturday, a two-hour wait meant she missed seeing the electronic music band Odesza. But she decided to stick it out.
“I was just shocked, because I come to Moonrise at Pimlico, and it’s just as large of a crowd, if not larger, so I’m dissapointed,” she said. “I would just like them to do better, that’s all.”
Dave Joseph, a spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club, said officials hadn’t received any complaints of particularly long lines.
“We haven’t heard anything like that,” he said. “With 140,000 people, someone’s bound to have issues at some point.”
Once again, the question of how many more times revelers would gather at Old Hilltop for the Preakness hung over the event. Stronach has committed to staging the race at Pimlico in 2019, but has made no promises after that.
The Maryland Stadium Authority is expected to release the critical second phase of a $600,000 study on options for Pimlico’s future by the end of this year.
Though Stronach invested in the mega-stage and the elevated chalet structures in place of some hospitality tents for Saturday’s event, Jockey club officials said in the most definitive terms to date that they have no plans to make the investments that would be necessary to maintain Pimlico as the Preakness’ permanent home.
“We’ve made it pretty clear that we’re not going to put any funds into it,” Ritvo said. He estimated that necessary improvements would cost at least $300 million to $500 million.
“If the state believed that there was a commitment that needed to be done through the [Maryland] Stadium Authority or something, obviously that’s something that we would consider,” Ritvo said. “We want to make sure we’re not here holding a gun to anyone’s head or looking for a handout.”
Stronach has invested $30 million in recent years in upgrades to Laurel Park, where it hosts 159 racing days to Pimlico’s 12. The track is located midway between Baltimore and Washington.
Stronach has invested $20 million in Pimlico during the same period. But Ritvo has said the company can’t afford to invest heavily in both tracks, and it has designated Laurel as its “day-in and day-out track.”
Mike Brown went to Laurel Park to place bets on the Preakness one year when the Pimlico machines went down. He was all for moving the race to the oval some 19 miles away, even in his 40th consecutive Preakness at Pimlico.
The 65-year-old lives in Laurel.
“I have seen amazing changes at Laurel Park, particularly in the last couple years,” he said. “The facilities are better.”
His 24-year-old daughter was less sure. She didn’t mind the old-timey feel of Pimlico, but in her first Preakness, had to take others’ word for it that Old Hilltop is where the race belongs.
“It’s more authentic, right?” she said. “I have no context.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Quinn Kelley, John-John Williams IV, Brittany Britto and Don Markus contributed to this article.