The size of the crowd may be reduced a bit by the defection of Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck, but 80,000 people are expected to pass through the turnstiles of Pimlico, paying a minimum of $7 admission and as much as $50 for the best seats, to see the Preakness on May 18.
They can spend $50 for a chicken-salad lunch in the Preakness Terrace, or $3.75 for a black-eyed Susan, the official Preakness drink. When they're not busy buying tens of thousands of hot dogs, sodas and souvenir T-shirts, they'll be pushing more than $4 million through the betting windows.
General Manager Chick Lang will be very busy counting the till, but he surely will find time to deliver a homily or two on his favorite new subject: the evil of capitalism and the way money is threatening to ruin the grand tradition of the Preakness.
Not since Lang's old hero, Spiro Agnew, was ranting about law and order has there been a more brazen display of hypocrisy than the Pimlico general manager's diatribe against Robert Brennan, the owner of Garden State Park.
It was Brennan who lured Spend A Buck away from the Preakness by putting up $2.6 million in purse money and bonuses if the colt wins the Jersey Derby at his track on Memorial Day. And it's easy to understand why Lang's comments about Brennan -- "He has no regard for anybody or anything" -- were so vitriolic.
Brennan had figured out Pimlico's game. He was willing to pay an honest price for the big attraction that Pimlico (as well as Churchill Downs and Belmont) has been getting at cut-rate prices for years. While the Triple Crown tracks had been paying off winning owners largely in "tradition," Brennan put up hard currency.
Now, perhaps Churchill Downs, Pimlico and the New York Racing Association will do the same. In fact, a Pimlico spokesman said yesterday the three Triple Crown tracks now are considering offering a bonus that would keep the best horses in the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. It's about time.
Almost every track that tries to turn a race into a major attraction does so by putting up substantial purse money to lure a top field. Chicago-area Arlington Park and Budweiser offer $1 million for the Budweiser Million. California's Hollywood Park has tried to create the country's definitive 2-year-old event by offering a $1 million pot. Even little Latonia Race Track in Kentucky tried to put itself on the map with some aggressive promotion, a corporate sponsor and a $350,000 purse for the Jim Beam Stakes.
That's the only way to compete in the racing game -- unless your track happens to be the site of one of the Triple Crown races. Churchill Downs puts up $250,000 toward the purse of the Derby. Pimlico spends $350,000 for the Preakness. The Belmont Stakes has $300,000 in added money. The managements figured they could get away with this relatively cheap purse structure because a victory in a Triple Crown race gave a horse such prestige and so much future value at stud.
The Kentucky Derby still is so special that Churchill Downs can keep getting away with this game. The track's price- gouging reached such astronomical levels this year ($30 admission to the grandstand) that even its most ardent local boosters were appalled -- and attendance fell off sharply -- but the added money for the Kentucky Derby remained at half the level of the Arkansas Derby.
Brennan proved, however, that the Preakness didn't have the Derby's unshakable prestige and that his money was a lot more bankable than the race's tradition.
If Lang wants the Preakness to remain great, Pimlico had better take some of that revenue from the $3.75 black-eyed Susans and put it into future purse money. It's time for Pimlico and its general manager to put up or shut up. Especially the latter.