The 145th Preakness Stakes will be run Oct. 3, the first time since the end of World War II that Maryland’s most attended annual sporting event will be held outside May.
Gov. Larry Hogan and 1/ST Chair and President Belinda Stronach announced the new date Saturday during an NBC broadcast about an hour before the originally scheduled post time for the Preakness. Stronach gave a brief introduction before Hogan made the official announcement at the end of an hour-long special replaying American Pharoah’s Preakness win in 2015.
“Under normal circumstances, I would have stood today at Pimlico Race Course with Ms. Stronach to present the Woodlawn Vase to the winner of the 145th Preakness Stakes. But, as we all know, these are not ordinary circumstances,” Hogan said. “I am delighted that we were successful in working with 1/ST, the Maryland Jockey Club and all who are connected to Maryland’s Thoroughbred racing industry to set the new date of October 3.”
Baltimore Major Bernard C. “Jack" Young said: “I would have loved nothing more today than to crown a new Preakness winner and present the famed Woodlawn Vase along with Ms. Stronach and Governor Hogan. But as we all know, Baltimore City is simply not ready to reopen at this time. Working to preserve this Baltimore City treasure has been one of my proudest achievements as mayor. I am grateful to all parties that we were able to set a new date in the future when it will be safe for this historic event to take place.”
Hogan and The Maryland Jockey Club announced in mid-March that the Preakness would be postponed, shortly after Churchill Downs Inc. moved the Kentucky Derby from May 2 to Sept. 5 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hogan originally said he hoped to find a new date in September, but that proved incompatible with NBC’s broadcast schedule, which also has been scrambled by the virus. Organizers also considered dates in July and August before settling on October.
“We look forward to presenting the 145th Preakness Stakes in a prime spot on our fall sports schedule,” NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller, said in a statement. “We can’t wait to embrace racing at Pimlico when the leaves are changing colors.”
The order of the Triple Crown series remains a mystery because the New York Racing Association has yet to announce plans for a postponed Belmont Stakes, currently still on the calendar for June 6. Even if the Belmont is moved, as many industry observers expect, it could be the first leg of the series instead of the third. The race could also be run at a distance shorter than its typical 1 ½ miles, which presents a unique endurance test for 3-year-old thoroughbreds.
In such a scenario, a Triple Crown winner could be anointed in Baltimore for the first time in history.
“We don’t know where we’re going to be in October with respect to public gatherings, if it will be spectator-free or not … but obviously, if there’s a Triple Crown on the line, it will be a very big day,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“It will be different, weird, but that’s where everybody’s at with everyday life right now,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said. “I hope everyone realizes that this is a one-off and not to get stuck too far in the weeds on changes to the Triple Crown.”
The broader industry, fans and trainers of top 3-year-olds will all benefit from the races, no matter the dates or the order in which they’re run, Moss said.
“If a horse sweeps the Triple Crown in this scenario, would it be the same as it was for American Pharoah and Justify?” he said. “No. Would there be an asterisk involved? Yes. But the whole year has an asterisk on it. So what are you going to do? You’d still be beating the best horses of your generation in the three key races for 3-year-olds in the United States.”
The timing could also create dilemmas for trainers planning to run their 3-year-olds in the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, scheduled for Nov. 7 at Keeneland.
Other major questions remain. Churchill officials have remained adamant about holding the Derby in front of fans. But with little short-term optimism for a COVID-19 vaccine, most professional sports leagues are considering plans to re-open without spectators. That’s been the case in thoroughbred racing, which has carried on without fans in states such as Florida and Arkansas.
Is there a chance the Preakness, which drew 131,256 fans last year, could be run in front of a full grandstand? The Maryland Jockey Club already canceled the InfieldFest portion of the event, but plans for the race itself remain up in the air.
Based on current conditions, Moss anticipates that all three Triple Crown races will be run in front of empty grandstands.
“Maybe when we get to the first Saturday in September, things will have improved enough to where some fans will be at Churchill Downs,” he said. “But there’s also a possibility that when we get to the first Saturday in September, things will have regressed badly enough to the point there wouldn’t be a Kentucky Derby at all. All possibilities right now are on the table.”
The announcement of a new Preakness date comes at a time when Maryland horsemen are anxious to see spectator-free racing resume at Laurel Park. With no purse money coming in since racing was halted in mid-March, many trainers have said they’re scraping by as they work to keep their horses fit.
“I’ve received a lot of text messages and a lot of calls saying, ‘That’s great they want to talk about the Preakness, but if we can’t get up and running again, how are they going to pay for it?’” Foreman said.
Racing resumed Thursday in neighboring West Virginia and at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and Santa Anita Park in California this weekend. New York will follow on June 1. So Maryland horsemen hope to be cleared for racing as soon as next weekend. They believe they’re set to operate within Hogan’s requirements but are seeking a clear go-ahead from both the state and Anne Arundel County.
Foreman noted that the resumption of live racing has direct implications for the Preakness, because the horsemen’s purse account, currently depleted, would be needed to support the expected card of lucrative stakes races.
“If we can’t resume live racing and get some money back into the industry, it’s going to be very hard to conduct a race card,” he said. “We need to get back up and running as soon as possible.”
The Preakness was last held outside May in 1945, when the entire Triple Crown series was pushed back in the waning days of World War II. The races were held over three consecutive weekends in June that year.
But the calendar, and even the locations of the races, were more fluid in earlier years. The Preakness was run on the same day as the Derby twice, in 1917 and 1922, and in New York, on the same card as the Belmont, in 1890. In others years, it was run before the Derby or after the Belmont. When Gallant Fox became the second Triple Crown winner in 1930, for example, he kicked off his achievement at Pimlico, not Churchill Downs. The order of the races was not set until 1931 and the five-week span for the Triple Crown series not established until 1969.