A week ago at this time, the build-up was just beginning. Orb, the impressive Kentucky Derby winner, was on his way to Old Hilltop to take a shot at history.
Workers were setting up tents and chairs and booths and tables and stages, sprucing up the grounds and the backstretch surrounding the two green-painted barns used for stakes horses.
Pimlico Race Course is an old place, the second-oldest track in the country, opened seven years after Saratoga in 1870. Yes, there are times when it shows its age. But, for at least one week every year, the rickety racetrack is transformed by the optimism of youth.
Young horses looking to take steps toward greatness. Mostly young people (and the occasional old ex-sportwriter) looking to party in the infield.
This year’s Preakness was a race for the aged, as in “age-ed.” The winning trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, is 77, though he felt five years short of being the oldest to take the Preakness behind Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who was 82 when he won with Bold Ruler in 1957.
His last Triple Crown win was in 2000 with Commendable in the Belmont Stakes. His most recent one was his 14th, breaking a tie with Fitzsimmons for the most in Triple Crown history.
The winning jockey, 50-year-old grandfather Gary Stevens, is the oldest Preakness winner, passing Eldon Nelson, who was 45 when he led Bee Bee Bee to victory n 1972. Stevens, who came out of an eight-year retirement in January, last won a Triple Crown race with Point Given in the 2001 Belmont.
And winning owner Calumet Farm, though under the new direction of Brad Kelley, can trace its lineage back to the 1930s and horses like Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation. This was its Preakness win since Forward Pass in 1968.
Critics will point Oxbow’s victory as the slowest Preakness since Carry Back in 1961 – the Kentucky Derby winner would go on to finish seventh of nine horses in the Belmont – after the slowest six-furlong time since Bally Ache in 1960. Credit the wily Stevens, who knew they were going slow and wasn’t about to speed it up until lulling the field to sleep and kicking away in the stretch.
Bottom line, Oxbow crossed the wire first. In a Classic race. For classic connections.
“I get paid to spoil dreams,” Lukas said. “You can’t mail it in. It’s a different surface, a different time. You’ve got to line them up and run them.”
Aside from the elation of the winners, there was the disappointment of not seeing a Triple Crown for at least another year, now 35 and counting. There was much optimism and anticipation this year, in large part due to the connections.
Shug McGaughey is a Hall of Fame trainer known for his unwavering patience. He had never won a Derby until Orb and only been to the Preakness twice before and not since 1989. Co-owners Stuart Janney III of Maryland and Dinny Phipps are descended from two of the last great American racing families.
As much as people wanted to see a Triple Crown, they really wanted to see it for these guys.
“I thought if we got it done that going back to Belmont, we would be really comfortable there and have a really big chance,” McGaughey said. “There was more pressure, not because he was 3-to-5, but because I think there were so many people hoping. I felt like we had a lot of people behind us. It’s disappointing in that respect.”
Today, the build-up has changed to take-down mode. The horses have left, the stages and tables and chairs and booths are gone, as is the buzz for a Triple Crown. So are all the people, 117,203 strong, the fourth-largest crowd in Preakness history.
Of course, much of that mass was concentrated in the infield, for one of the best organized parties in sport or otherwise. Sun, skin, suds and just about anything else you could ask for, it was there.
“Do any of those kids know who won?” Lukas asked. “They’re probably still out there.”
Another Preakness in the books. God and MJC willing, I’ll be back to write another chapter next year.