Kegasus. The guy who tried to fight Artax. Infield lacrosse games. Afleet Alex and Scrappy T. Infield concerts. Genuine Risk and Codex. Infield races on the rooftops of portable toilets. Secretariat’s timer malfunction. Shopping-cart hustlers. Bodexpress. Park Heights front-lawn chicken barbeques.
The Preakness was already weird.
But 2020 may have been the weirdest. Maryland’s signature Thoroughbred race, anchored in its spot as the second leg of the Triple Crown for decades, was moved to October as the final stop in the series and run without spectators in attendance at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. The Covid-19 rules allowed for backstretch workers, trainers, race officials, essential staff, limited owners and even more limited media access.
So what was it like? Weird, man, weird.
Those last three words are borrowed from trainer Bob Baffert, who came to Balti-more with the Kentucky Derby winner – which didn’t seem weird at all. Of course, Authentic won the Derby in September, almost three months after Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes in June. Second in the Derby, Tiz the Law skipped the Preakness in favor of some rest before the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“It’s all messed up,” Baffert said of the 2020 Triple Crown, racing, life in general while standing outside the stakes barn at Pimlico two days before the Preakness. “The thing is, we just feel fortunate. At least we get to run. It looked bad there for a while.”
A Baffert Derby winner felt normal, but even he wasn’t sure what to expect going into that race and he had similar thoughts about the Preakness – which he’s won seven times.
“It didn’t feel like the Derby until the gate opened,” he said. “When the gate came open, then it felt right. OK, it’s on. I think it’s going to be the same here. It’s not going to feel like it, but when the gate opens it’s going to be the Preakness again. You’ll feel it.”
The Hall of Famer was right. Nothing felt like the Preakness at Pimlico that day. Bomb-sniffing dogs greeted cars at the gate on Hayward Avenue. The old, mechanical odds boards in the empty grandstand clicked and blinked for no one. The buglers practiced their calls to the post in the empty clubhouse. The notes seemed longer, slower, sadder. Behind a bay of deserted mutuel windows in the clubhouse, the Woodlawn Vase waited its trip to the infield winner’s podium while surrounded by Baltimore police officers and a military honor guard. Along the inside rail, Pimlico’s 1-2-3 floral arrangements went carnations, roses, black-eyed susans instead of roses, black-eyed susans, carnations. Individual hospitality tents for a few owners and a smattering of other dignitaries lined the apron, extending more than a furlong up the stretch in space that would normally hold thousands.
Even the sounds were different. Nobody sing-songed, “Black-Eyed Susans” in a cadence unique to the Preakness while hawking drinks in souvenir glasses. No one tried to take flash photos of horses in the indoor paddock, so the security guard didn’t have to yell, “No flash photography” 6,182 times (perhaps more) like normal. She missed that added responsibility. Trainer Steve Asmussen’s whistling and finger-snapping encouragement of Wicked Whisper in the Miss Preakness could be heard from yards away, and he was wearing a face mask. In response to racial unrest in the nation, the Maryland Jockey Club eliminated the singing of the state song “Maryland My Maryland” during the post parade. A poem written by James Ryder Randall in 1861, “Maryland My Maryland” encourages the state to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. State legislators led by House Speaker Adrienne Jones are looking to replace the song in 2021, and MJC is all in. Without the thumping music and overflow crowd, jockeys could be heard encouraging their mounts in the stretch. Owners in the upstairs box seats were able to offer “Good luck” calls to jockeys in the Preakness post parade, and the jockeys replied.
But, as Baffert predicted, when the starting gate clanged open the Preakness became the Preakness again – as good and unpredictable and fantastic as ever.
The horses don’t know a thing about the world health crisis. They don’t know the pain and uncertainty of 216,000 lives lost in the country. Horses don’t watch the news, and lose all mental focus. They don’t worry about their jobs, or whether their aging parents are safe. And the horses delivered in the 2020 Preakness. Swiss Skydiver seized control of the lead with a decisive move on the final turn, then thwarted Authentic’s challenge in the stretch. For three-eighths of a mile, they raced as a team – separated by a neck at the finish in the second-fastest Preakness in history.
After everything – sickness, delays, uncer-tainty – the horses put on a show at the 2020 Preakness.
And there was nothing weird about that.