Preakness offers symbol of a resilient Baltimore

The third Saturday in May was like any other. The grandstand at Pimlico Race Course was a bouquet of fancy hats, and the infield was awash in live music, cheap beer and betting tickets that fell like snow after every race.

Normalcy returned to Baltimore in the form of the 140th Preakness, a rite of spring that came at just the right time for a city that spent much of the past month in anguish and turmoil.


If the biggest day in Maryland racing had been scheduled any sooner, it might have been moved or canceled. The civil unrest that bubbled up in the wake of the Freddie Gray tragedy was still so fresh two weeks ago that the Orioles had to relocate their home series against the Tampa Bay Rays to Florida after holding their April 29 game in a padlocked ballpark.

That game, played just two days after the worst rioting in Baltimore since 1968, drew only a standing-room crowd to the press box and reinforced the national impression that our beleaguered city was not even a safe place to watch a professional sporting event.

Of course, that was a false impression. The reason the Orioles locked the fans out that day was to make sure that critical civic resources were not diverted from any of the areas affected by the ongoing demonstrations. Still, when your national image has been shaped for years by television crime dramas, what are people supposed to think?

Baltimore is still in pain, but a feel-good event like the Preakness certainly can have a soothing effect on a community and project a more positive image well beyond it. The festive crowd of 131,680 and the scenic panoramas that were broadcast worldwide Saturday will do nothing to solve the persistent social problems that plague the city, but there is something to be said for changing the subject.

Since the rioting broke out at Mondawmin Mall on that ugly Monday afternoon and spread throughout the night, the community has come together to organize cleanup operations and the affected businesses have begun to rebuild. Tempers cooled when Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against the six police officers involved in the arrest and transportation of Gray.

To be sure, many of the issues that surrounded his death from injuries sustained in police custody remain unresolved. So it is not so much a city moving on as one that is finding ways to cope with a situation that does not lend itself to easy answers.

No one is going to forget what has happened here over the past few weeks, but the opportunity to focus on something positive — even if it was just eight very expensive horses running around an oval track — was just too good to pass up.

This Preakness, in particular, came with a high-quality field, and Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah grabbed the second jewel on the way to one of the rarest feats in sports.

It's always about history here, even if a Triple Crown candidate hasn't made it past the Belmont Stakes since Affirmed outdueled Alydar three times in 1978. Never before has it been so much about civic redemption.

There has been more talk this year about moving the Preakness out of Baltimore, prompting Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to tour Old Hilltop on Saturday morning, reassuring horsemen, track officials and the media that he is committed to keeping the race at Pimlico. Who better than the man who had to declare a state of emergency just less than three weeks ago to reinforce the importance of keeping the city's most storied annual event where it has always belonged?

The no-fan game and the Orioles' lost weekend showed how a popular sports franchise put the city first at great expense. The Preakness and all the festivities associated with it during the past week showed how a popular sporting event can help bring a fractured community back together.

From the grandstand to the corporate tent village to an infield packed with people who wouldn't know American Pharoah from Cleopatra and Mark Antony, the world got to see a flattering reflection of Baltimore that would have been hard to imagine three weeks ago.

Maybe the Preakness was just a horse race, but it also was a symbol of the resilience of a city that has been knocked down before and always finds a way to get up.


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at