BOZICH | Preakness talk is Derby, Triple Crown & (as usual) Pimlico's future
At the Preakness, the talk is about the Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming, the Triple Crown and (as usual) the future of Pimlico.
BALTIMORE (WDRB) -- The Preakness is about Saturday's race but not until everybody is finished fussing about the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Triple Crown, the crumbling Pimlico facilities, the heat, the newcomers and a partridge in a pear tree.
Let's begin where everything begins in horse racing -- with the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is a colossal eruption of athleticism and sound, the one day on the racing calendar when 20 horses jostle for position into the first turn like power forwards scrambling to rebound that last shot.
The Derby can be cruel and unfair. Ask Classic Empire. Or ask Todd Pletcher, who trained Always Dreaming, the Derby winner. Pletcher has watched the replay of horses getting bounced outside the Derby starting gate.
The Belmont, still three weeks away, is a marathon. Who wants to run a mile-and-a-half? Nobody. A few horses will handle that assignment. They always do.
The Preakness? It's simply a horse race, probably the fairest test of running ability of the Triple Crown races spread over five weeks. On Saturday the field will be half of the Derby's 20. The distance is a sixteenth of a mile less than the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter.
So what is there to fuss about at Pimlico?
The Preakness is the only event on the calendar where it is recommended you bring your own Port-a-Pot, hand sanitizer and portable generator. Vegas put the odds at 9-2 that Pimlico will finish the day without running water or electricity.
You know what that means: Preakness Week opened with the usual blast of stories about the future of the race.
"People have been writing those stories about Pimlico since 1959," one veteran Preakness observer said Thursday morning at the Alibi Breakfast, an event the track uses to publicize its signature race.
Keep it at Pimlico or move it to Laurel, Maryland's premier racing facility or turn the Triple Crown upside down by putting the second leg in Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami (Yes, PLEASE!).
Maryland government officials say the race isn't going anywhere, even though Pimlico honchos argued that the facilities need a -- gulp -- $300-to-$500 million rebuild to stay in the entertainment game on the third Saturday in May.
Mandatory public service announcement: The third Saturday in May is 1/12th of Pimlico's yearly racing calendar. The owners recently pumped $35 million into Laurel with the hopes of attracting the Breeders' Cup. At Laurel, they race 150 days a year, not 12.
This political tug-of-war about the future of the Preakness has been raging since I started covering this race more than three decades ago. Pimlico still looks like a place Secretariat and Citation would recognize if they could attend Saturday's race.
That's enough talk about the future of the Preakness. We can pick it up again in 2018. I promise it will still be a thing.
The race itself deserves at least 295 words of discussion, starting with the fundamental handicapping question:
Is Always Dreaming still the horse that was nearly three lengths better than runner-up Lookin At Lee and at least seven lengths better than everybody else?
"He's doing fantastic," Pletcher said. "We've got a special horse.
"The quick turnaround is the obvious difference (from the Derby). You're coming back in 14 days from the Kentucky Derby, which can be a very demanding race … the horse is fit and ready. It's about keeping him fueled up and ready to go. Keep him happy."
If Pletcher is correct, Always Dreaming will crackle to Belmont like American Pharoah, California Chrome and I'll Have Another, the last three runners to energize horse racing by taking a live Triple Crown opportunity to New York City.
Make a note of this: Pletcher's Preakness record is 0-8, with only a single third-place finish. Jockey John Velasquez has also struggled. He's 0-7. The trainer and jockey were a combined 2-for-63 before they scored in the Derby.
Keep an eye and a few dollars on Classic Empire. A closer look at the Derby showed that Classic Empire was compromised by traffic circumstances that existed at the Derby but should not be an issue Saturday. The Derby winner will start in post four, Classic Empire just to his right.
Was racing luck responsible for the eight-length gap between the winner and Classic Empire?
"In a race like the Derby, it's so paramount to have good position going into the first turn," said Norman Casse, who assists his father, Mark, as Classic Empire's trainer.
"If you don't, you do things you don't want to do."
"Classic Empire being the 2-year-old champ and having a troubled trip, you have to worry about him," Pletcher said.
It's more fun than worrying about the future of Pimlico -- again.
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