by Jeremy Plonk
May 20, 2019
Absolute opinions have become the norm in this social media age. But Saturday’s Preakness Stakes once again proved that you can’t believe everything you read, hear and see. Those promising that the 2019 middle jewel of the Triple Crown would suffer from public perception of the Santa Anita horse deaths, threats to move the race to Laurel Park, crumbling conditions of the Pimlico plant, distrust of the disqualification process from the Kentucky Derby – or even a lack of a Derby winner (or two) – missed the mark.
By most metrics, Saturday at Old Hilltop proved a rousing success. Attendance topped 130,000 – only 10,000 less than the Kentucky Derby – and more money was bet on this 144th Preakness Stakes Day racing card than any other in its history. Mother Nature offered her Friday and Saturday best, and Sal Sinatra’s racing crew offered excellent cards. No doubt the customer experience suffered from a sub-standard physical plant whose plumbing issues have been well-documented for many years. And overnight TV ratings were record lows with new competition from the PGA Championship and a difficult storyline to sell without Country House and Maximum Security. The NBC numbers from Louisville showed viewership as strong as any the last quarter-century, dispelling a national narrative that everyone hates horse racing right now.
So the naysayers did had something to tout, and they did in spades. Reading Twitter and news accounts of the Preakness on Sunday and Monday morning almost made me forget what a great experience I had at the event, and how absolutely warm and inviting the staff at Pimlico made customers feel. Instead, the angry reminded us why they’re angry, and reinforced the decades-long stance that Pimlico needs an aesthetics and structural overhaul.
They were right then; they’re still right. I’ve been going to Pimlico since the early 1980s, then under the Cohen family, and it needed a facelift in the Reagan Administration. That was passed along to the DeFrancis family and eventually the Stronachs. The blemishes are real. But the Preakness continues to grow in spite of the supposed promises of its demise.
Consider the explosion for the race since 2000, when attendance hit 100,000 only once prior. Handle was up this year about 20% compared to just 2013. It’s happened in the face of a declining foal crop, declining national handle, declining facility, a safer and much tamer infield environment, and trainers who claim 5-6 weeks between starts is part of their new norm of horsemanship.
Maybe the Preakness is like a zombie movie. No matter what forces work against it (internal and external), you can’t bring it to its knees. It may crash through a collapsing building at Pimlico, or even rise out of the lake in the Laurel Park infield soon enough, but something tells me the Preakness will keep marching on a successful series of sequels.