The Kentucky Derby is an all-American rite of spring that glorifies hype, sentimentality and price gouging. It defines Louis ville, whose economy might buckle without the megabucks it generates.
The Preakness Stakes is a significant horse race for Baltimore, which, unlike Louisville, has a pro team in all four major sports. It’s a celebrated source of civic and state pride, but not the be-all and end-all.
The Derby is frenzy. The Preakness is fun.
Nobody knows more about their contrasting vibes than trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert. Lukas, 82, has four Derby wins. Baffert, 65, has five, and each has won six Preaknesses.
“There’s the pizzazz and the 144 years of the Kentucky Derby and everything that goes with it,” Lukas said. “Suddenly the party’s over and the music stops.”
Both tout the charms of the Preakness, Charm City’s signature race.
“I think as I get older, the pressure of the Derby gets bigger,” said Baffert, whose Derby winner, Justify, will be the Preakness’ odds-on favorite Saturday. “The Preakness is my favorite race of the Triple Crown. It’s stress-free. We go there and have a good time. About the only thing you have to watch out for is overdoing it on the crabcakes.”
Lukas’ take: “The best-kept secret of the Triple Crown is Baltimore and the Preakness, let me tell you that.”
So much is unique and riveting about the Derby, which brings together the best 3-year-olds from around the country — California, Florida, New York, Arkansas and Louisiana. None has ever gone 1 1⁄4 miles, and most never have faced each other and/or run at Churchill Downs. Then there are 160,000 screaming fans. Finally, the 20-horse field often becomes a chaotic rodeo.
“At no other time will these horses be asked to do any of that,” Lukas said. “And don’t forget the 1,000 people in the saddling paddock. Not all horses can deal with that.”
Baffert’s 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, was remarkably easygoing, but even he had emotional problems on Derby Day. The long walk from the backstretch is another tradition, and it freaked out Pharoah.
“The walkover can be crazy. They should really do something about it, and Pharoah almost lost it there,” Baffert said. “People were running next to him, yelling, and if we hadn’t put cotton in his ears for the noise, he wouldn’t have won.”
At the Preakness, the walkover is not an audience participation free-for-all. Saddling is done in the infield, minimizing the impact of the loud crowd.
Old Hilltop is a 180-degree turnaround from The World’s Most Legendary Racetrack, as lordly Churchill bills itself. The Twin Spires tower over American racing’s equivalent to Yankee Stadium. From the stakes barn on the backstretch, Pimlico looks like a factory that closed in 1933 but somehow never was demolished. Its ancient elevator sounds as if it’s powered by squirrels on a treadmill.
None of that bothers horsemen, who love Preakness hospitality. “Pimlico, they just do a great job,’’ Baffert said. “They’re happy to have us there, and they make sure all our needs are taken care of.”
Even media types, notorious for complaining, dig the Preakness. Handicapper Kurt Hoover, a Californian, is a big fan.
“If you’ve never been to the Preakness, you should make it a point to go there,” Hoover told his TVG audience Friday. “Great race, great track, great people. I’ve been to all the Triple Crown races, and I always enjoyed the Preakness the most.”