When Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert talks about the Preakness and the embattled racetrack that has hosted it for 144 years, his eyes light up. When he hears speculation about the race possibly moving out of Baltimore, it’s a different story.
“You hear rumors, ‘Well, they’re going to move it’ or whatever,’’ he said Wednesday. “To me, it’s magical in here. There’s something about it. I’ve been watching it since I was 10, 11 years old. You think of Jim McKay. You think of the Preakness. There’s so much history here.”
Three years after American Pharoah passed through town on the way to horse racing’s first Triple Crown since 1978, Baffert is back with Justify — another super horse that is posted as a 1-2 favorite to take the second step toward another.
Maybe another Triple Crown wouldn’t change all that much for Baffert. He’s already revered as one of greatest trainers in the history of the sport. But the strong possibility of another Triple Crown so soon after Pharoah’s historic triumph certainly adds to the aura surrounding the Preakness at a time when its future continues to be debated.
Baffert is happy for that. He has been a Baltimore booster for a long time and it’s not just public relations fluff.
The first time I met him was a chance encounter at Hollywood Park in the 1990s. I was just a baseball writer on holiday betting the horses with a buddy who turned out to be a mutual friend. He introduced me as a writer from Baltimore and Baffert immediately began praising Charm City as if he grew up there or worked for the Chamber of Commerce.
This was 20 years ago, about the time he won his first Kentucky Derby and Preakness and came up less than a length short of winning the Triple Crown in 1997 with Silver Charm. He already had formed an opinion of Baltimore that has not wavered in spite of the ugly headlines that have tarnished the city’s reputation since then.
He’s not alone. The trainers and jockeys who come here for the third weekend in May rave about the hospitality. In a famous post-race interview here in 2014, California Chrome owner Steve Coburn was so impressed with Pimlico that he openly criticized Churchill Downs for the way his group was treated during Derby week.
“I’ve said this once, I’ve said it 50 times, Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality,” Coburn said. “Because these people right here, they’ve treated us like we’re royalty, and I can’t say thank you enough.”
That doesn’t mean another site would be unable to duplicate that kind of atmosphere, but there aren’t many tracks that could accommodate the giant crowd that populates the grandstand, the infield and the corporate tents. There aren’t any that don’t already host a Triple Crown race that could match the historic significance of Pimlico.
Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle Bravazo and Sporting Chance on Saturday, is a straight talker who isn’t afraid to take a position on a subject as important to horse racing as the future of the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
“Yeah. I think they need to leave it here,’’ he said. “I think they need to take a 143 years of tradition and happy people who come to enjoy it and leave it right where it is. I would really be disappointed. The barn area. The hospitality. The fans enjoy this. That grandstand’s old, but it’s comfortable for a lot of people.
“And what they’ve done here on the infield is as good as any place in the Triple Crown. Even Churchill doesn’t have this facility in the infield. They have some, but not as much. I think after 143 years of happy customers, I’d leave it alone. I wouldn’t fool with it.”