It was a beautiful spring day at Old Hilltop on Wednesday — the kind of day you might be tempted to call the middle jewel of Preakness week.
Under normal circumstances, it would be the day the winner of the Kentucky Derby arrives at Pimlico Race Course and gets paraded before the media. It would start with a morning of Triple Crown talk around the stakes barn and end with the inside-baseball drama of the post-position draw in the late afternoon.
This year, the biggest news Wednesday morning was that the water was running again.
The water main that broke outside Pimlico’s entrance Tuesday has been repaired and will not affect either Black-Eyed Susan Day or the Preakness, but it fed the long-running negative narrative about the 19th century racetrack and the future of the race that has defined it for almost 150 years.
The Stronach Group already had announced that almost 7,000 grandstand seats would be blocked off because of safety concerns this weekend, and those are just the temporary infrastructure issues that have cropped up at the ancient facility so far this month.
The significance of the 144th Preakness already had been seriously eroded by the controversial end of the Kentucky Derby, in which solid Triple Crown candidate Maximum Security finished first but was disqualified for impeding several other horses during the rain-soaked stretch run.
The fallout from that decision left the Preakness with no Triple Crown implications and a serious lack of equine star power, which only helped to fuel the widespread fatalism that hangs like last year’s heavy fog over the future of Baltimore’s signature sporting event.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, two-time Triple Crown trainer Bob Baffert isn’t set to arrive in town until late Thursday, his absence Wednesday causing a major charisma shortage.
There still are some fine horses set to run Saturday and — perhaps because the race and its huge purse now seem more winnable — the Preakness will feature its largest group of horses (13) since 2011.
In a last-minute twist, highly regarded Louisville trainer Dale Romans entered Everfast on Wednesday to expand this year’s field to a baker’s dozen, which is particularly noteworthy since his horse Shackleford came out of that 2011 crowd to give him his only Preakness victory.
While Baltimore fans and the local media obsess over the future of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown series, whether the Preakness remains in Baltimore was not as pressing an issue around the stakes barn.
D. Wayne Lukas, who has saddled 43 horses in the Preakness over the past 39 years and has never hidden his affection for the race and the city, said Wednesday that moving the race to Laurel is probably the best option under the current conditions. As long as it remains in Maryland, he said, it’s history and tradition would survive the change of venue.
“You’ve got 144 years of tradition,” he said. “It would take a while for it to get locked in. I think it would survive if they went to Laurel, which is the obvious place. The numbers they’re throwing around to redo this place are astronomical. My gosh. I don’t know that anybody with a bond issue or anything is going to go for those kind of numbers.”
He’s not alone in that opinion. The Maryland Stadium Authority study that recommended a full redevelopment of the track and it’s surrounding real estate estimated the cost to be $424 million. The Stronach Group has indicated it has no desire to pump more money into Pimlico and a largely public venture would be a very tough sell with state and local budgets already strained by more important priorities.
The question for all of the stakeholders is the same: How many more water mains have to break or seating areas need to be deemed unsafe before a decision on the fate of the race and the race track can not be put off any longer?
It has been asked before and it will be asked again, probably at about this time next year, but the clock appears to be running out on the Preakness in Baltimore.
“There’s always going to be a Preakness,” said War of Will trainer Mark Casse. “I haven’t really got into all the politics of Pimlico. It’s unfortunate, but in life, nothing ever stays the same.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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