Too many solutions bandied for non-existent Preakness problems

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

May 23rd, 2016

The biggest surprise on Preakness Day wasn't that Nyquist suffered his first loss nor that it was Exaggerator who handed it to him.

By far the most shocking development was the outpouring of fans and money from bettors nationwide on a miserable day weather-wise in Baltimore. Expectations were surely shattered when the Maryland Jockey Club announced a record crowd of 135,256 despite a steady, day-long rain and temperatures that didn't even get out of the 50s.

Luckily losing only one grass race to the weather (the last race on the 14-race card), the MJC also announced a record Preakness Day handle of $94.1 million, though the figure was closer to $94.9 million if you tabulate the pool totals found in the Equibase charts. For the Preakness itself, handle in the straight pools (win, place, show) and vertical exotics was slightly more than $55 million.

On December 31, when we look back over the previous 12 months in racing, Preakness Day will be the second most attended day of racing in the country this year. Preakness Day handle will be anywhere from second to fourth biggest of the year (depending how things go Belmont Day and Breeders' Cup Saturday), and the Preakness itself will be the second or third highest individually wagered-on race of the year (again, depending how much bettors embrace the Belmont). With no Triple Crown on the line in three weeks, I would also expect the Preakness to garner the second highest television ratings of any race this year.

In other words, the Preakness is exactly where it needs to be and generally has always been. However, it's no surprise that there are some that continue to provide solutions to problems with the Preakness that don't really exist.

Rick Bozich, who now writes for after a long and distinguished career at the Louisville Courier-Journal, recently had something to say on the subject. In his defense, the following was published Friday before the surprising business results were known, but some of his remarks (in italics) are still worth reviewing.

If the Triple Crown has a questionable link, it's the Preakness. Pimlico is a dump. Tradition is the primary thing that keeps horsemen coming back to Maryland on the third Saturday in May.

Negative observations on Pimlico's limited aesthetic appeal have become a well-worn cliché. However, it doesn't appear to keep crowds away on its biggest day nor does it affect the offered hospitality that's almost universally praised by horsemen and fans alike.

I covered my first Preakness in 2011 and attended the track as a fan in 1996 and 2002. Perhaps I didn't experience every nook and cranny of the place, but I don't recall the facility being terribly different in that 15-year span.

For what it's worth, the current grandstand dates to the late 1950s and the clubhouse to the late 1960s. Here's what the facility looked like (right) on Preakness Day 1947.

If you started the Triple Crown series today, Pimlico would rank 73rd [hyperbole - VH] on the list of tracks you'd pick for a signature event. Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Arlington, Del Mar, Monmouth, Saratoga and other spots do more to sell racing beyond hard-core fans.

Unlike most new ballparks, football stadiums and basketball arenas that come with all the fancy bells and whistles, Thoroughbred racetracks typically don't have the leverage of getting capital upgrades publicly financed or re-located to nicer areas.

In the dog eat dog world, Pimlico indeed lags behind many other facilities. Those of us in the industry know the reasons why. But of the above mentioned, only Santa Anita could possibly accommodate the type of crowd the Preakness has become accustomed to generating.

Churchill Downs and Belmont are historic venues capable of hosting big racing moments like the Breeders Cup. Their owners have invested money in their facilities.

Those two tracks inspire a blast of history, not a sense of "What am I doing here?"

Pimlico is capable of hosting a big racing moment annually, but not the Breeders' Cup? I dare say a Breeders' Cup at Pimlico could probably outdraw most that have ever been held at Belmont (54,289 was the highest in four tries).

Pimlico doesn't inspire a blast of history? You mean the one track out of the three that Man o' War raced over in counter-clockwise fashion? The site of a famous match race (Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral) that enthralled the nation and was glorified in a best-selling biography and film? That's just for starters.

At Pimlico, you hope you survive without the power failing. Ask anybody who has been stuck in a Pimlico elevator or been advised that cab drivers won't risk driving out to pick up a fare late on Preakness night.

Point taken on the power. And based on personal experience, the best way to avoid getting stuck in a Pimlico elevator is to use a combination of escalators and stairs to get from Point A to Point B. It's more efficient, and healthier.

People who have been to Pimlico have noticed that it's surrounded on all sides by residential areas. One side is generally better than the other side, for sure, and it's the better side that most visitors to the track (including those in suits) enter and exit the track through. Walking 4-5 blocks to my car after 10 p.m., at least for me, hardly inspired worry.

If racing really wanted to increase the appeal of the Triple Crown, they would shake up the challenge, extend the distance of the second leg and move the race to Santa Anita.

With only one Triple Crown sweep since 1978 and only four since 1948, the wisest thing, of course, is to make the series more cumbersome and harder to win.

Here's a hot racing tip: Get the West Coast invested.

American Pharoah's big win did not translate to more interest in racing in the western half of America. That was reflected in the Kentucky Derby's Nielsen ratings.

Of the top 15 markets, one was west of the Mississippi River -- Denver.

The entire state of California shrugged. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, like Baltimore, were missing from the Top 20.

I don't know about spots 11-20, but no California market even made the top 10 for this year's biggest television event: the Super Bowl. 3:30-4 p.m., no matter the month, isn't exactly prime time in the Pacific Time Zone.

I don't want to sound defeatist, but the failure of West Coast markets to embrace racing on television perhaps stems from the fact most of the larger ones have never embraced racing in their own backyard to a significant degree. There have been racetracks in San Francisco, Sacramento, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix and Portland for decades, and none have ever risen to the status of a major venue.

Sadly, in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the number of tracks has contracted in recent years. Does interest non-organically increase with a transfer of a classic? I'm skeptical.

How about growing the Triple Crown audience? Can that be done?

Michael Wilbon of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption has argued the Triple Crown has become too much of a regional event. The Derby Nielsen ratings appeared to confirm that.

Quoting a sports television personality that never tries to hide the fact he's allergic to anything having to do with racing, and probably could care less whether ratings or up or down, is not a good starting point.

Audience fragmentation is the story of the modern era. (e.g. Can the [re-]growing of the World Series audience be done? Has baseball become too much of a regional event?) Derby ratings dipped a little, the Preakness ratings this year were up a little. Ebbs and flows...

The top 3-year-olds report to Baltimore two weeks after the Derby. They are asked to do less, not more. They run the Derby at a mile-and-a-quarter and the Preakness at a mile and three-sixteenths. After a three-week gap, it's time to grind over a mile-and-a-half at the Belmont.

Wouldn't it be more reasonable to contest the second leg of the Triple Crown at a mile and three-eighths, making each race a bit more daunting than the one before?

It's hard enough for the current market to produce a decent number of Thoroughbreds durable enough to race 31.5 furlongs in five weeks as well as their ancestors, much less 33. And how reasonable would it be for Pimlico, or Santa Anita for that matter, to start the Preakness at the three-eighths pole?

Maybe racing can't fix all of the Triple Crown problems. But keeping the second leg in Baltimore certainly does not help.

Record attendances and handle at all three Triple Crown venues have occurred in recent years. Television ratings have generally increased since NBC took over from ABC. I'd hate to know what the real problems are.

Look, it's no secret that the hierarchy of the Stronach Group, if given the option, would like to transfer the Preakness to Laurel, which they have heavily invested it. But political pressures make it more likely that, at best, Laurel will at some point be a temporary host while the Pimlico site is updated.

I fully understand that Pimlico, as it currently stands, is not a cool-looking place. It needs a lot of work, if not a total overhaul. Perhaps more important questions to ask: For the vast majority who attend, is it a fun place to be on Preakness Day? Did they have a good time? Judging by the number of people voting with their feet the last few years, the answer is obvious. When you're having fun and are glad to be there, how concerned are you with how a place looks?

The Maryland Jockey Club and Pimlico also deserve kudos for the remarkable rise in success of Black-Eyed Susan Day. A previously sleepy afternoon of racing has turned into one of the biggest weekdays in the sport, a solid third behind Kentucky Oaks Day and Breeders' Cup Friday in popularity. More than 47,000 (a non-Preakness Day record) were at the track last Friday. Again, that would not be possible if the facility was on the absolute verge of collapse and a complete turn-off.

The bottom line is that the Preakness' position in the hierarchy of races in terms of attendance, handle, and television ratings is generally unchanged from years past. The day that it does is the time to get worked up over the location and quality of its venue, its position on the calendar, or the race conditions.