A recovery program for me and a friend
by Vance Hanson
As part of the recovery program which I am contemplating entering I must, as difficult as it may be, take that first step -- perhaps the toughest of them all. I face potential ostracism, strange looks, and nods of disapproval and disbelief. I know what I am about to admit puts me in a distinct minority, and while it won't really be on the same level as political oppression, the mental burden that goes along with being who I am has become increasingly heavy as the years pass.
So here goes, step one. My name is Vance and I'm.....a fan of Pimlico.
Yes, Pimlico. That ancient Baltimore course that now holds our attention on but a single day, the third Saturday in May. That facility which seems to need a fresh coat of paint on an annual basis. That place with the claustrophobic indoor paddock, obstructive glass-enclosed grandstand, the mythical tightest turns in racing and scandalous infield festivities. That racetrack at the epicenter of what the great and good would describe as a "vibrant" neighborhood.
God help me, I love Pimlico.
Why on Earth, you might ask? The daily racing product is not great. It's not a prime tourist destination among vacationing racetrackers, and we've already noted its aesthetic qualities.
Maybe it's because the history of the place is simply hard to beat in my book. Though its appearance has changed radically over time, the ground on which the horses have raced has changed relatively little. When one visits Pimlico and gazes over that racetrack, one can't help but imagine the legendary runners who made their presence felt at the Preakness (G1) thundering down the stretch, or think about the Horse of the Year titles won and lost on crisp, autumn afternoons in the Pimlico Special (G1) (old version). The newer springtime version of the Special, instead of crowning the national champion, has often given us an early peek at who would eventually win it: Criminal Type, Cigar, Skip Away, Mineshaft and Invasor (Arg) come to mind.
The Dixie (G2) and Black-Eyed Susan (G2) are historic and great races, regardless of what the American Graded Stakes Committee thinks. They've had many fine days in the sun, though on a less frequent basis than the top two. And we can't forget there used to be a definitive juvenile race named the Pimlico Futurity that yielded names recognizable even today, until it was moved to Laurel and renamed.
If Pimlico isn't the ultimate in hallowed American turf, it's in the final four.
Another reason I love Old Hilltop is that in this age of survival of the fittest (or survival of the subsidized, as the case may be), it's falling between the ropes, taking brutal punches, its knees buckling, but not entirely going down. Not quite ready to be counted out. I'm rooting loud and hard for this underdog. People like rooting for the underdog.
The release of Pimlico's 2009 spring meet stakes schedule this week was another body blow for the track and its supporters. Purse cuts, cancellations -- what else is new? I'm not going to dwell on the political and economic reasons why Pimlico is where it is, but only to make a few suggestions on how it can hold its head up high, even if for a brief weekend of action.
It has become customary for the three Triple Crown sites to throw a huge sporting bash surrounding its classics, scheduling a royal feast of stakes action spread over two days. Churchill Downs and Belmont Park seem capable of continuing this, but poor Pimlico simply can't keep up. We all have to bow to reality, especially in this time of tighter purse strings, but we don't have to make a mockery of the situation either.
Outside of the Preakness, Pimlico's stakes schedule is frankly atrocious. Management is trying to keep up with Jones's (i.e. Churchill and Belmont Park) by modestly funding a lot of stakes that cater to every type of specialist rather than pouring their diminishing reserves into a select few that might become major events which attract marquee runners on a consistent basis.
The old argument against putting all of your eggs in a few baskets, which has been brought up every time there's an announcement regarding the Pimlico Special's cancellation, is used in the name of defending the interests of local horsemen who don't want the out-of-town folk to swoop in, plunder and leave. That's all fine and good, but it ultimately does little to enhance Pimlico's status, nor does it give much reason for continuing to run these races. If the goal is not to make them better, what is?
Horsemen have a veto, and I understand that, but I would still hope that Pimlico management could attempt to focus more on keeping its premier races relevant for the 21st century. That means no more cancellations of the Pimlico Special. That means allocating more of their scare resources toward the revival of some of its signature events: the Black-Eyed Susan, the Dixie, and Gallorette H. (G3). If there's money left over to properly fund one of the myriad of sprints or minor turf events during the course of the meet, that's fine. But let's keep it simple and focused. Let's make Preakness weekend something truly spectacular -- again.
There's even a carrot to local interests in this idea, if you think about it. With 13-race programs the norm on both Preakness Eve and Preakness Day, the reduction in the number of stakes on both days opens up room for more overnight races to be scheduled, thus allowing the bread-and-butter to become a more integral part of Maryland's showcase racing days.
Pimlico presently can't win playing by the rules others have laid out. It can, however, create its own rules, save face and hold its head high again. At least for two days in May.
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