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Preakness is coming, and it’s going to be ‘weird’: No crowd and altered traditions will greet a talented field

Sorrow filled the voice of Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg as he thought ahead to a Preakness day devoid of fellowship.

Before Rosenberg was a state delegate representing a district that includes Pimlico Race Course, he was a neighborhood kid who watched the Preakness from the home of his buddy Jay Slater, just across Rogers Avenue from the top of the stretch.

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“It will be emotional,” he said. “When the bugler plays the call to the post … just talking to you about it, it’s an emotional moment, because you won’t be doing it with friends and in the midst of the crowd that’s such a part of that day.”

Other than the elite thoroughbreds thundering over 1 3/16 miles of dirt, nothing about the 2020 Preakness Stakes will feel familiar. There will be no crowd of 130,000, no musical act blasting tunes, no drunken patrons stumbling to overtaxed portable toilets. There will be no traffic jam on Northern Parkway, no neighbors turning their driveways into paid parking lots, no gamblers racing to the windows at Pimlico to place last-minute bets. There will be no crowds at morning workouts as anticipation builds throughout the week, no Alibi Breakfast on Thursday to gather the competing trainers. NBC’s commentators will analyze the race from a studio in Connecticut. The pro-secessionist state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” will not be played as race organizers embrace the social justice messages that have swept American sports.

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The coronavirus pandemic pushed the Preakness from its usual date on the third Saturday in May, and this October edition will be robbed of the atmosphere that makes it one of the state’s signature events. But those who love the race say they’d rather have it in this form than not at all. And with Kentucky Derby champion Authentic expected to lead a robust field, the competition projects to be up to par.

“The Derby was so strange. It didn’t feel like the Derby until the gates came open, and I think the Preakness, it won’t feel like the Preakness until the gates come open,” said seven-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Authentic and another top contender, Thousand Words, for the race. “There’s no vibe, nothing. It’s the crowd that gets you pumped up. But we’ll go in there like we always do and hope to get another one.”

The race lost a potential hook for the casual fan when Baffert’s horse outdueled Belmont Stakes winner Tiz the Law in the Sept. 5 Derby. If Tiz the Law had won, he would have become the first horse in history with a chance to complete the Triple Crown in the Preakness, which is serving as the last leg in the pandemic-altered series.

NBC analyst Randy Moss anticipates a competitive, exciting Preakness but said there’s no question the Triple Crown races have felt “weird” given the schedule changes and empty venues.

“You just hope it’s a one-off,” he said. “At the same time, it’s encouraging that the races are able to be run at all.”

He noted that the Kentucky Derby, which averaged 8.4 million viewers (down almost 50% from 2019), was still the most-watched American sporting event between the Super Bowl and the start of the new NFL season, a period during which the NBA, Major League Baseball and other leagues returned from pandemic-induced suspensions of play.

The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico and Laurel Park, waited as long as possible before deciding to run the Preakness without spectators.

“As we continued to work very closely with the local and state authorities, really we had to take our lead from them,” said Tiffani Steer, vice president of communications for The Stronach Group. “The writing was on the wall in and around that late August time frame”; the announcement was made Sept. 2.

Steer said the company would try to engage fans with a “Preakness at Home” behind-the-scenes program over Instagram and Facebook Live and would use a new “jockey cam” to give viewers a sense of what riders see as they go through the Preakness. The traditional prerace rendition of “Maryland, My Maryland” will be replaced by performances from artists with Baltimore ties.

Maryland Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones spurred the last change when she called for the state song to be replaced in June. “We agree that symbols matter,” Steer said. “These things matter.”

The absence of spectators will diminish the economic punch of the race, both for The Stronach Group and for the Baltimore area, which receives more than $50 million a year in economic benefit from the Preakness, according to a study released last year by the Baltimore Development Corp.

The timing carries a sad irony for elected and community leaders who fought to keep the race in Baltimore and saw their efforts pay off earlier this year when the state legislature approved a $375 million plan to renovate Pimlico and Laurel Park.

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“That was one of our arguments to keep the race here, the benefits from discretionary spending,” Rosenberg said. “I won’t have friends coming in from out of town, or you won’t have people going out to dinner Friday night and Saturday night. But hopefully, it’s just a one-time impact.”

For the track operator, Preakness revenues support year-round operations. Losses will be mitigated by reduced costs, because the company did not have to pay musical acts for InfieldFest or build temporary structures to accommodate corporate patrons. But the betting handle for Kentucky Derby day, which also ran without patrons, was down from $250.9 million in 2019 to $126 million in 2020. If Preakness day suffers a similar percentage drop from its record $99.9 million handle in 2019, the loss would be about $48 million.

Steer said Stronach officials are optimistic based on betting levels at the company’s tracks in Florida and California, in addition to Laurel Park, where spectator-free racing returned in late May. The company has put together a robust racing card for Preakness day, with the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, usually run on Friday, serving as a warmup act for the main event.

“While it doesn’t make up for the feel of the crowd and having the crowd there, we’re hopeful,” she said. “I think we feel that we’ll come out of this strong. We’ll be fine. We’ll have to make some adjustments, but we feel good about it.”

The altered Preakness has not diminished overall enthusiasm for equine activities in Maryland, said Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. He noted that stables and trail-riding services are “swamped with business.”

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“It’s totally surprising,” Peddicord said. “We thought we would be really struck hard, but we haven’t had a single licensed stable — we license 728 — report they’re going out of business.”

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As for the Preakness, Peddicord acknowledged “it’s definitely going to be different.” But the Horse Industry Board will encourage racing lovers to gather for virtual watch parties.

“People in the horse industry are really resilient,” he said. “One day, if you’ve got a racehorse, it might be going great, but then it might be unsound the next day and the world is falling apart. So horse people are used to that, and we’ll do the best we can.”

Rosenberg said it’s difficult to gauge how much Park Heights residents will miss the hoopla surrounding the race. Community leaders have remained busy providing input on the Pimlico rebuild, which is also designed to spur private development in the neighborhoods surrounding the track.

“It is odd and ironic that in the year when we cemented the future, [the race] wasn’t run on the third Saturday in May and when it will run, nobody will be there,” Rosenberg said.

He’s hosted a Preakness party since 1974. Guests munch on bagels and sip Bloody Marys at his home before making the 30-minute walk to Pimlico, where they watch the races together from the grandstand.

This year, he marked the originally scheduled day for Preakness, May 16, by walking past his old school chum’s home at the corner of Rogers and Merville avenues. He’ll do the same before the race card begins Saturday.

“I may buy bagels that morning, just to have some semblance of a Preakness morning,” he said. “I hope not to watch the race alone.”

145TH PREAKNESS STAKES

At Pimlico Race Course

Oct. 3, post time 6:45 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)

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