June 8, 2010

Lookin At Lucky finally gets his break at Pimlico

What an interesting trip to the 2010 Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Wanting to witness a Preakness Stakes in person at Pimlico Race Course before the Maryland Jockey Club likely moves the race to Laurel Park (due to financial woes as well as the decrepit state of the second oldest racing venue in these United States), my wife and I cheerily set out to the resting place of Edgar Allan Poe. I knew the trip was off to a good start when we came across Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey at the DFW airport as we both waited out extended weather delays. Jerry seemed to appreciate getting to "talk shop" about the next day's Preakness Stakes. Coincidentally, Jerry was flying back from visiting his father in El Paso and NOT heading northeast to Baltimore, as we were. And because of this exchange, I'll never beat myself up over my lousy picks again!

First of all, I got Jerry's attention by walking over and mentioning to him that Cigar was my "big" horse, to which he replied, "What a coincidence - he was MY big horse, too!" At that point, I wanted to confront him over his bonehead speed-happy ride in the Pacific Classic, costing Cigar his 17th consecutive victory to the obscure Dare And Go, but opted for the civil route instead. Thus, after exchanging pleasantries about our reflections of Oaklawn Park, where Bailey often rode during my Oaklawn "heyday," I pulled out my charts and we both went into handicapping mode for the next ten minutes. This is something I will always remind my wife of when she accuses horse racing of being simply another "hobby" -- I can remind her of the day I held my own with Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey!

What about Paddy?, I asked. "I like him a lot, but we'll see if he can handle true dirt since the Derby track was wet-sealed," replied Baily. Jerry shot back with a comment about long-shots Pleasant Prince and Schoolyard Dreams, that I hastily dismissed. Getting back to my horses, I interrupted to ask his opinion of 'Lucky. His response was very direct and without pause, "Lucky is one of those horses who seems to find trouble... he never seems to be in the right position to get a jump on the others, and that's probably an indication of his ability rather than the jockey's moves." To which I added, "kind of like Dollar Bill several seasons back" and received an affirmative nod from Jerry. But the problem was that I disagreed with Jerry's analysis on Lucky. How in the world could I possibly dispute a Hall of Famer when it comes to horseflesh and jockeys and when horses should move?! So I just smiled and nodded but did add that I personally witnessed his Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and was very impressed with his determination in getting past Noble's Promise. And with that, my 15 minutes in the shoes of Kenny Mayne or Randy Moss - playing Jerry Bailey's sidekick - came to an abrupt end.

Of course, the race itself wasn't nearly as interesting as our journey. But then again, in horse racing the race rarely lives up to the road getting there. Super Saver looked brilliant in the walk-over with Pletcher, but resembled a tired horse as the race unfolded. Paddy O'Prado obviously didn't take to the real dirt track and Lookin At Lucky indeed did improve off his previous unlucky stretch rides and got to the wire first for trainer Baffert under a new jockey - Martin Garcia. First Dude and Jackson Bend ran gutsy for the place and show spots, respectively.

It was a fun race to watch without too much at stake from a betting perspective, but the real happenings were going on in the infield at Pimlico, where $20 for unlimited beer refills brought in 40,000 strong party-goers to the infield alone (total attendance was 97,000). In addition to a Zach Brown Band concert, competitions ranging from beach volleyball (professional tour) to washers/cornhole and beer pong (out of shape amateurs) obliterated the sun-baked revelers. Many journalists have attacked the Preakness in recent years due to this atmosphere, but the track officials have made it clear they want the big crowds -- however they can get them. Even if that includes a marketing campaign of "Get Your Preak On!" Luckily, we had seats in the Old Hickory section of the grandstand, so we were able to retreat to our seats for much of the day.

Belmont does offer a kinder, gentler environment with more families coming over from the neighboring boroughs. So if you're high society you may want to wait for the more tempered Belmont Stakes or even the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in the fall. But if you're like me - a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n roll - then put the Preakness Stakes on your short list for big races to see before it becomes, well, history!

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