The Middle Jewel Has Many Facets: The “Other” Races at the Preakness

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preakness_logoWhen the starting gates open on Preakness weekend, two months of intensive planning and collaboration will have come to fruition.  Overseeing the incredible endeavor is Mike Gathagan, vice-president of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club.  Since 2001, Gathagan has coordinated all aspects of Preakness weekend.  For the past two months, Gathagan had devoted himself seven days a week to the job, logging in 12-20 hour days.  Still, he admits, there are often “still not enough bodies” to fully promote the twelve stakes races that run in addition to the better known Black Eyed Susan, Dixie, Jockey Challenge, Lady Legends and Preakness Stakes.

As the Preakness approaches, Gathagan’s focus shifts from chasing down credentials to the horses themselves.  For this, he relies on Georgeanne Hale, the racing secretary.  Hale and her team have spent the last two months hustling horses to fill each of the sixteen races that run Preakness weekend.  Gathagan cautions, “it’s not just the one race.”  In fact, for months, the team has traveled across the country, from Charlestown to Florida to California, to fill their Preakness weekend race cards.

Gathagan calls Hale’s efforts “a science” and “a labor of love.”  She tirelessly works the phones and email seven days a week.  Hale must persuade trainers that running their horses in one of the Preakness weekend stakes races is both worth the purse and will promise a good shot at winning.  Once the Kentucky Derby approaches, she turns her focus on the would-be stakes horses.  The finishers at Churchhill Downs determine not only the Preakness Stakes runners but those in lesser races too.  As Gathagan puts it, the real work begins, “as soon as they cross the finish line on the first Saturday in May.”

The morning after the Derby, Hale’s stakes coordinator travels to Churchhill Downs to do all the “shaking hands and kissing” filling a race card requires.  Specifically, he is charged with the task of inviting the Derby winner to the Preakness and arranging his ship date.

In addition to luring competitors for the stakes races, Hale and her team try to convince trainers to bring their greener horses for the other non-stakes races offered Preakness weekend.  By raising purses by $10,000, Hale hopes to entice a bigger field, reasoning that trainers will be more likely to ship an allowance horse with their stakes runner if they are already making the trip.

For Hale, the ultimate goal is “the biggest fields on those two race days (May 17 & May 18),”  making the point that, “the bigger the field, the more money bet.”

The importance of the two days cannot be understated.  The money made from Preakness weekend simulcasts and live betting at the track sustains Maryland racing all year.

Because of this, the Maryland Jockey Club has worked to increase its promotion of the Friday before Preakness weekend, a day that culminates in the Black Eyed Susan, a three-year-old filly race.  Both Friday and Saturday boast eight stakes races each, ending with the Preakness Stakes.  As the second race in the Triple Crown, the race needs little more to augment the day.  Huge opportunities, however, lie in Friday’s race day.

Traditionally, race fans have flocked to Pimlico for the Friday afternoon running of the Black Eyed Susan.  This year, they will also be treated to a concert by the Goo Goo Dolls meant to rival Saturday’s concert.  In addition, for the first time, the infield will open to spectators both Friday and Saturday.

Hale is already seeing a bump in ticket sales for Friday’s festivities.  The concert is a big draw for many new visitors to Pimlico.

An increase in spectators also calls for increased security.  The recent bombings at the Boston Marathon spell drastic security changes at tracks nationwide, many of which trainers saw at last weekend’s Kentucky Derby.

As Hale’s job includes anything to do with racing, security falls under this umbrella.  Horseman will immediately notice more cameras in the barn area at Pimlico and required check-in and check-out points.  Hales hopes this will not only heighten overall security Preakness weekend but also dispel recent press about drugging horses.

The Preakness is a hallmark of the spring in Maryland, rivaling Opening Day at Camden Yards and the first crabcake of the season at Lexington Market.  The race itself puts Baltimore on the map nationally, spotlighting the pinnacle event in the Triple Crown and showcasing Maryland thoroughbred racing at its finest.  The efforts to promote and celebrate Preakness weekend result from endless hours of behind the scenes work. For those in the trenches, the two days of Preakness racing define their success for the entire year.

 



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