BALTIMORE — Churchill Downs and Pimlico, separated by 498 miles, are worlds apart. Lordly Churchill crowns itself “The World’s Most Legendary Racetrack,’’ and its twin spires are the sport’s most recognizable image. Blue-collar Pimlico may be “The World’s Most Decrepit Racetrack.” The back of the building looks like a factory that shut down in 1937 but for some reason was never demolished. Yet somehow there’s still a funky charm about Old Hilltop.
During Derby week, Churchill is a destination. Dawn at the Downs lures thousands of locals and tourists to watch workouts and thrill to the atmosphere. Until Collected, Laoban and Uncle Lino arrived Tuesday at Pimlico, only Derby winner Nyquist and runner-up Exaggerator were on the grounds.
The Kentucky Derby is internationally famous, and its solid gold trophy is racing’s most coveted hardware. In Maryland, the old line is “The Derby is the race they run before the Preakness.’’ Nobody could ever take that joke seriously, even Baltimoreans.
Yet second fiddle still can play a sweet tune, and Pimlico always has one trump card: As long as the Derby winner shows up, there’s always the chance for a Triple Crown. Finally, after a 37-year wait, American Pharoah made the breakthrough last year, and it would be a shocker if the heavy Preakness favorite, the undefeated Nyquist, doesn’t go to Belmont Park in three weeks with a chance at immortality.
“If he doesn’t win the Preakness,” said Leandro Mora, Nyquist’s assistant trainer, “he’ll just be another horse who won the Derby.’’
The Run for the Roses is an over-the-top rite of spring whose anthem, “My Old Kentucky Home,” produces more tears than a thousand diced onions. Nobody weeps when they play “Maryland, My Maryland,’’ whose melody was lifted from the old German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum.’’
The Derby is a happening; the Preakness is a major race. After the long buildup to the cataclysmic first Saturday in May, the relative calm of the third Saturday in May is a welcome relief for horsemen.
As Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said last year: “The Preakness is the fun leg of the Triple Crown. Everybody is having a good time. Pimlico rolls out the red carpet and they treat us great. Everybody is in the same barn. It’s a very laid-back, relaxing atmosphere.’’
It rubs off on the horses. “Nyquist is so much more relaxed than he was in the week leading up to the Derby,’’ trainer Doug O’Neill said. “He’s sleeping a lot more.’’
Another Preakness highlight is affordability. In Louisville, the world capital of price gouging, tiny motel rooms that otherwise go for $80 get jacked to $400 a night for Derby weekend. A mile cab ride from Churchill costs $30. Hit a $2,000 trifecta and you might break even.
Even the rich get fleeced. Nyquist’s owner, J. Paul Reddam, brought an entourage and said, “If we had finished second, we would have had a net loss.’’ That got a laugh, but he was kidding on the square. A Preakness trip isn’t cheap, but at least the Crabtown classic won’t put you in debt.
The Preakness also is an equal-opportunity event. At least three-quarters of the Derby also-rans don’t come, opening spots for newcomers. In the previous 32 runnings, only three Preakness winners skipped the Derby — Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006) and the filly Rachel Alexandra (2009). None was an obscure long shot, but every year they keep showing up.
California trainer Gary Sherlock, 70, will make his Preakness debut with Uncle Lino. He knows he’s up against it. “I’m just going to go and have fun,” Sherlock said.
That’s always the Preakness battle cry.