- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

BALTIMORE

We learned three things Saturday at Pimlico Race Course. The Preakness winner - the filly, Rachel Alexandra - is a great horse.

The runner-up, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, is a pretty good horse as well.

And Baltimore takes its beer very seriously.



On the track, Rachel Alexandra proved her new owners right by their decision to run her in the Preakness after she had won the Kentucky Oaks two weeks ago by 201/4 lengths.

It wasn’t as easy as the Oaks; Rachel Alexandra had to fight off Mine That Bird at the finish line to win the Preakness - the first time a filly has won the second race of the Triple Crown in 85 years.

“She was struggling at the end,” winning jockey Calvin Borel said.

It was a dramatic home stretch, with Mine That Bird - the 50-1 long shot that Borel rode to win the Kentucky Derby - closing the gap, trying to catch Rachel Alexandra, the horse Borel had rode to win the Kentucky Oaks.

“Like I said before, she is the greatest horse I have ever been on,” Borel said.

It might have seemed like justice if Mine That Bird, with new jockey Mike Smith aboard, defeated Borel and Rachel Alexandra. Smith nearly pulled it off, but he couldn’t ride the rail like Borel did on Mine That Bird to win the Derby.

“No one would leave the rail,” Smith said. “I had to come around a little.”

It was a great race as Mine That Bird closed the gap in the home stretch from eight lengths to one at the finish line.

Too bad the smallest crowd in recent memory for Maryland’s great race was on hand to see it.

The novelty of the filly’s win will turn out to be the next best thing to a Triple Crown horse heading into the Belmont Stakes.

But in Maryland, the talk will be about how Pimlico Race Course was a ghost town compared with previous years.

We learned that people will put up with a lot in Baltimore - a high homicide rate, a mayor facing a grand jury investigation and the Orioles. But when it comes to drinking, Baltimore has drawn a line in the sand.

In past years, fans were allowed to bring beer and other libations into the track to create one giant party in the Pimlico infield. It was raunchy, dangerous and often out of control. But it had become a Baltimore birthright.

That birthright had been taken away by Pimlico’s owners, who decided to ban outside beverages, instead opting to offer only beer and drinks sold inside the track.

It was startling to arrive at Pimlico on Saturday at about 11 a.m. with no traffic backups and more portable toilets in the infield than fans.

One hour later, there were still more port-o-lets than patrons, and throughout the entire afternoon, there were large empty spaces throughout the infield, with security guards normally trying to keep the chaos under control instead standing around with little to do.

Twenty minutes after the race, the infield was empty.

Official attendance figures show the crowd was down by nearly 35,000 from last year’s attendance of more than 112,000.

“The Preakness is a Maryland tradition and will remain a Maryland tradition,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley, who pushed for legislation to take over the Preakness and Pimlico and Laurel Race Course if its bankrupt owners, Magna, move the Preakness or try to close the Maryland tracks.

He would have better luck heeding the banner that a plane flying over the track pulled along “Need A Miracle? 1-888-7-Healed.”

The Pimlico infield got bad publicity in recent years when people were being hit with full cans of beer while they took part in the traditional running of the port-o-lets. So track owners ended that tradition.

How much longer the Preakness remains a Maryland tradition remains uncertain.

At one point Saturday, this message went out over security walkie-talkies: “The door in the clubhouse entrance… the frame just broke.”

As far as a good number of fans are concerned, so did the Preakness.

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