John Clay

Never mind the mess, Baltimore is having its Preakness party anyway

You’ll never guess what’s happening Saturday right here in Baltimore: They’re actually going to run the Preakness Stakes.

Never mind neither of the Kentucky Derby winners are here. (A Bob Baffert joke, and a good one.) Not Maximum Security, the colt who finished first only to be disqualified and dropped all the way to 17th. Not Country House, the second-place finisher declared the winner and who soon after developed a cough that sent him to the vet instead of Baltimore.

Never mind that this is the first Preakness in 23 years (1996) without the Derby winner (Grindstone) or the first time in 68 years (1951) that the first four horses to cross the Churchill Downs finish line did not make the trip to Pimlico for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

And never mind that 6,670 seats in Pimlico’s public grandstand have been judged unsafe for spectators — “condemned” is the official world — as the crumbling track’s owner and the host city continue their long-running squabble over whether this 144th running could be the next-to-last, or even last at its current site.

“Everybody’s trying to keep a positive attitude here,” said the local television reporter Friday during her live remote shot in front of the stakes barn for one of the local morning shows.

“It’s still an important race,” said Elliott Walden, President/CEO and Racing Manager of WinStar Farm, outside that same stakes barn.

Yes, it is. And WinStar, along with China Horse Club and Starlight Racing, own the 5-2 morning line favorite in Improbable, the Baffert-trained colt placed fourth in the Kentucky Derby. War of Will, the colt fouled by Maximum Security in Louisville, is second choice at 4-1. Alwaysmining, a Maryland-bred on a six-race win streak, is the third choice 8-1 in the field of 13.

“Somebody had to be the favorite,” Baffert said Friday. “There are some good horses in here. I think it’s a pretty even race.”

It’s a laid-back race. Without the major players in the Churchill Downs controversy, and any chance of a Triple Crown winner out the window, there was a much different air to things on Friday morning. Fewer media members. Fewer onlookers.

There was Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, training legends, sitting in folding chairs at the far end of the stakes barn, casually joking, storytelling and needling.

“Is Dale here?” Baffert asked Tammy Fox, longtime partner of trainer Dale Romans, who decided at the last minute to enter Everfast, a colt with one win in 10 starts. “I know what happened. Dale got hungry. He said, ‘Where can I get some good food?’”

Brad Cox, trainer of Lexington Stakes winner and Preakness entrant Owendale, asked Baffert if he had any other horses running at Pimlico this weekend?

“I’ve got a filly running in the Miss Preakness (Friday) for Gary West,” Baffert answered. “Her name is Fighting Mad. How about that?”

As Maximum Security’s owner, West is indeed fighting mad. Cold-shouldered by the Kentucky Racing Commission, the California-based billionaire filed a suit in federal court this week hoping to overturn the Derby decision.

“One time I wake up on one side of the fence and one time on the other,” said WinStar’s Walden when asked his opinion on the Great Derby Controversy. “I personally think Maximum Security was the best horse in the race. … The stewards did what they thought was right. In life, I’ve learned to try and respect authority.”

Who has final authority over the Preakness is a different ball of wax. The Stronach Group, Pimlico’s owner, has made it clear that after 2020 it intends to move the Preakness 27 miles down the road to Laurel Park, which it also owns. The city of Baltimore has vowed to block any such move.

“The Preakness belongs to Baltimore, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure the Preakness stays right here,” Baltimore mayor Jack Young told the Associated Press this week.

“I’ve never been to Laurel,” Baffert said. “I’m a traditionalist kind of guy. I like coming here. Just put up a tent. That’s all you need. The Preakness is a party atmosphere anyway. That’s what the classics are all about. It’s a big fashion party.”

Star horses or not, suitable facility or not, Derby controversy or not, Baltimore is going to have its party.

Preakness

Post time: 6:48 p.m. Saturday

Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore

TV: NBC

Purse: $1.5 million (Grade 1)

Distance: 1 3/16 miles (dirt)

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