From his porch on Hayward Avenue, David E. Franklin can see the ponies race on the big screen at Pimlico Race Course. But in this upside-down, inside-out year, when the Preakness Stakes was held on this October Saturday rather than on its usual third Saturday in May, there was a lot Franklin missed.
His neighbors setting up stands of home-cooked foods, or putting up signs hawking parking spaces on their lawns. Tens of thousands of Preakness goers walking through the neighborhood to the track, some in springtime finery and others in infield-ready clothes they didn’t mind muddying.
“I got enjoyment watching the people coming from all over,” the retired city truck driver said. “Everybody communicating, everyone into one another.”
Without the public allowed in due to limitations on large gatherings, the Preakness was reduced to its essence: a horse race. And that was enough. The only filly in the field, Swiss Skydiver, emerged victorious in a thrilling triumph over the boys — by a nose over Kentucky Derby winner Authentic. She now enters the history books of this unusual Preakness as only the second filly since 1924 to win here and the first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
And with Tiz the Law winning the Belmont, there was no chance of a Triple Crown winner this year, when the Preakness that is normally run as the second jewel was instead scheduled last.
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down, delaying or otherwise intruding on every part of life, the Preakness has endured, albeit not as the usual cherished if muddy and traffic-clogging rite of spring in Baltimore
On a sparkling, near cloudless day that put the 150-year-old Pimlico in its best light, the track was distractingly and disorientingly empty. It was hard to remember where the beer- and sweat-soaked infield or the Preakness Village of corporate tents used to be.
There were no fanciful hats or seersucker suits or crowds, with a cap of 250 allowed inside for an event that last year drew 131,256 spectators.
Instead, they were mostly at home, as they’ve mostly been these past six months.
“It’s depressing, very depressing,” said Pat Curran, who has attended every Preakness since 1997, when he was 17 years old.
A project manager for a plumbing company, Curran was at home in Nottingham on this Preakness Day, where he and his wife will serve steaks and crabs to a few friends and family as they watch the races on TV and bet by remote.
For him, the Preakness began as a guy thing, he and his buddies joining the raucous, anything-goes infield scene. They got older, married and started paying for nicer seats and dressing up, although they’d still dip into the infield to see acts such as ZZ Top, Post Malone and Bruno Mars.
This year, more than the music, he missed the very feel of that special Saturday in May.
“It’s a Baltimore tradition, and we became a part of Preakness," Curran said. “It’s the one time Baltimore gets along."
It has been a fractious year — politically and otherwise, with a raging pandemic but also a racial reckoning spawned by the police killings of unarmed Black people across the country. Despite being part of a tradition-bound industry, Preakness organizers sought to acknowledge the current climate by “re-imagining” its musical offerings this year, said Jimmy Vargas, who heads the entertainment division of Pimlico’s owners, The Stronach Group.
“The idea this year was to utilize our platform,” Vargas said, “and stand in solidarity and show support for social justice.”
The re-imagining began with the decision this spring to forego the traditional singing of the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” whose lyrics, written by a Southern sympathizer trying to get the state to take up his side in the Civil War, offend modern sensibilities.
He brought in Darin Atwater, conductor of the Soulful Symphony, as this year’s creative director. Ironically, the 50-year-old had sung “Maryland, My Maryland” at the Preakness as a freshman in the Morgan State University Choir.
Atwater said he didn’t have “a historical context” at that point to take offense, he was just excited to perform at the Preakness. For Saturday’s performance, he composed variations on the music traditionally played at the Preakness — the National Anthem, Riders Up and Call to the Post.
He brought 30 musicians, or about a third of his orchestra, to perform socially distant from one another on a trackside stage. Most members of the symphony, which is the resident orchestra of the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, are Black or Latinx.
“It looks like America when you look on stage,” Atwater said proudly.
Also performing with the symphony was Wyclef Jean, formerly of the Fugees, and Brian Newman, a jazz trumpeter and Lady Gaga’s bandleader. Jean covered the Bob Dylan song, “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” whose lyrics may speak directly to Baltimore, Vargas said.
“'Put my guns in the ground,'” Vargas quoted the song. “It’s a message of peace, let’s stop and pause as a country and take a look deep inside at where we are with things."
There has been tumult as well with the Preakness in recent years, when it’s been under constant threat of being moved to the newer and more plush Laurel Park, the other Maryland track owned by The Stronach Group.
But a $389 million deal to rebuild the dilapidated Pimlico and keep it as the home of the Preakness was hammered out last year. The Racing and Community Development Act was passed by the General Assembly during its last session and became law in May without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, who had reservations about new spending at a time when the coronavirus pandemic was taking such a large toll on the economy.
The renovation will transform Pimlico not just for the purpose of hosting the Preakness but to serve as more of a multi-use, year-round venue. It will add amenities such as athletic fields, areas for hosting festivals and markets, and a banquet and event space, as well as free up surrounding parcels to be sold to private developers.
The plan was something that surely would have been celebrated at the event this spring, particularly among the movers, schmoozers and shakers who hopped between the white corporate tents in Preakness Village. But not this year.
Another tradition, the awarding of the Woodlawn Vase trophy to the Preakness winner, was different, too, with a smaller crowd that included Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, an NBC TV host and two representatives of the winning owner’s group will participate in gathering under Pimlico’s famous cupola for the trophy ceremony.
Still, it remains the Preakness, said Alan Rifkin, an attorney who represents the Maryland Jockey Club and one of the key negotiators who struck the deal to transform Pimlico.
“We’ve weathered any number of different world events," he said. “There’s a longevity and a deep-rooted history to the Preakness that will weather this.”
Rifkin said the pandemic hasn’t slowed down the massive project, which is in an early phase of ironing out legal issues and beginning the design process.
That has kept him busy, but not so busy that he didn’t work up a “Certificate of Streak Extension” for his friend, Robbie Callaway. They serve together on the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation’s board, and Callaway, appropriately enough had a 48-Preakness streak going and was saddened that this year would break it. Rifkin’s certificate, with dubious standing, says it doesn’t as long as he watches it on TV.
Callaway planned to do just that, in what his children call his “horsey room” at his home in South Bethany, Delaware.
A lifelong advocate for children who served 24 years as a senior vice president at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Callaway is grateful to have shared the Preakness with now four generations of his family.
He first tagged along with his father, who drove charter buses to the Preakness, and over the years, he came to take his own son and then a grandson. He’s seen five Triple Crown winners, from Secretariat in 1973 to Justified in 2018.
This year, he’s missing the neighborhood — the church where he always parks, and the walk through the streets to the track.
“You really get to know the people,” Callaway said, “good, friendly people.”
The Preakness can seem to exist in a bubble apart from its host community, an event where tens of millions of dollars are wagered, in the midst of a neighborhood with a high rate of poverty.
This year, there is at least the attempt to bridge those two worlds: The name of a beloved Park Heights community leader, George E. Mitchell, was added to the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, the race for 3-year-old fillies that usually takes place the day before the Preakness. This year, it was moved to Preakness day.
Honoring Mitchell, who worked to improve the neighborhood until his death in July, " was the right thing to do,” said Audra Madison, the Jockey Club’s marketing director.
“We want to strengthen the relations with Park Heights," she said.
Mitchell’s family were on hand to present the trophy to the winner of the race.
“He would really just be happy that they didn’t move the race,” said his son, also named George Mitchell, a teacher and high school football coach who lives in Bethesda.
Now more than ever, Baltimore needs its Preakness, said Bethann Dixon, a trumpeter and middle school music teacher, who has played the traditional “call to post” at Preakness for about a decade.
“It gives hope, a sense of normalcy, even in an unprecedented time,” Dixon said. “And I think having Preakness, it’s such a mainstay of Baltimore, it’s something to give everyone hope.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this report.