For a few scary minutes, it looked like this star-crossed Preakness might end up the way the Triple Crown series began two weeks ago — bathed in controversy and concern for the future of the sport.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez was thrown off Bodexpress right at the start of the race and could have suffered serious injury. The horse then galloped riderless around the track like some ominous symbol of what might lie ahead for the Pimlico Race Course and Baltimore’s signature sporting event.
It already had been a strange and disturbing Preakness week, with the death of filly Congrats Gal at the end of Friday’s Miss Preakness Stakes and the chronic plumbing problems that marred the only weekend that matters at the facility.
The significance of the race already had been dramatically eroded by the strange end of the Kentucky Derby, when promising Triple Crown candidate Maximum Security crossed the finish line first only to be disqualified for impeding several horses as it headed for home.
So, there was Velazquez lying on the track as the 13 horses raced away, no doubt trying to figure out if he was still in one piece. He picked himself up and walked out of further danger, then reassured everyone after the race that he was fine.
Only then could anyone feel really good about the way War of Will shot down the rail, turning another questionable post position into the reason it had an almost perfect trip down the road to redemption.
Trainer Mark Casse said afterward that he didn’t consider it redemption at all, even though that would be an attractive angle considering his horse was also having a surprisingly good trip out of the No. 1 post in the Derby. That is, before he was knocked off stride by Maximum Security and fell back to finish seventh.
He called it relief, because War of Will could have been seriously injured on that sloppy track at Churchill Downs, but came out of the race healthy and ready to roll at Old Hilltop.
“Right after the Derby, I just felt — it’s hard to believe, but I felt joy and relief that he was OK,’’ Casse said, “and that we didn’t have the worst disaster in horse racing history.”
Casse had to wait to exhale again Saturday. He described Velazquez as “a dear friend of ours,” so he was worried this day might turn into a disaster that transcended the importance of his Preakness victory.
Velazquez refused medical attention, so the celebration could begin in earnest for War of Will and his connections, and Preakness week could end on high note after all that happened to cast an ugly cloud over it.
The announced attendance of 131,256 should remind everyone just how important the race is to the city of Baltimore and the record handle of $99,852,653 showed that the Derby controversy might have enhanced the attractiveness of the event — at least to the people that bet on the 14 races.
So, all’s well that ends well, right?
The hand-wringing over the future of Pimlico and the Preakness is not going to end because the race had a happy ending and the weekend was profitable. That’s pretty much what happens every year, so all the infrastructure problems that dogged this Preakness week will just be added to the running narrative that the racetrack is in such disrepair that it isn’t salvageable.
The fatalistic view in Baltimore that the beloved race will soon be moved to Laurel Park remains alive and well. The rhetoric about that might’ve been more muted the past few days, but nothing has changed.
The Stronach Group still seems intent on uprooting the Preakness, perhaps as soon as 2021, and the city has filed a lawsuit to prevent that from happening.
The disagreement has been festering for a long time, but no one can dispute that the track has become all but uninhabitable. The water main break Tuesday nearly crippled the facility and the lingering plumbing problems Friday and Saturday made restroom access problematic for many grandstand fans.
It’s a pretty sad day when the outhouses on the infield are the most dependable plumbing in the place, and many fans suspect the owners of the track aren’t all that unhappy about it.
The track needs to be completely rebuilt, dramatically renovated or sold for commercial or residential development. That much is clear.
The question is whether the stakeholders on either side of this issue ever get serious about finding a solution that might work for both The Stronach Group and the city.
Chances are, we’ll still be asking about it at this time next year.