Preakness Stakes favorite Improbable, left, is lead back to the barn at Pimlico as trainer Bob Baffert, second from right, and co-owner Elliott Walden look on. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

BALTIMORE — Bob Baffert always stays downtown for Preakness week, waking before the sun rises over the Inner Harbor and beating the rush-hour traffic up the Jones Falls Expressway. Each year, on the night before the big race, he dines at the same downtown steakhouse, a tradition that began in 2002, the year he brought Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem to Baltimore and the restaurant’s owner asked Baffert whether he would need a table the next night, after the race.

“I said, ’If I don’t win, I just need a table for four,’” Baffert, 66, recalled Friday morning at Pimlico Race Course, during a quiet moment outside the stall of Improbable, his 2019 Preakness hopeful. “’If I win, I need 20. So if you see my horse cross the wire, get me a table for 20.’ Sure enough, we win the race, we show up, and it’s like, ‘We have your table.’”

War Emblem was Baffert’s fourth Preakness winner, and he has saddled three more since, including the legendary American Pharoah and Justify, who went on to become the 12th and 13th Triple Crown champions in history, respectively, in 2015 and 2018. Those were good years for horse racing — and good years, by extension, for the Preakness.

But things are different for the 144th running of the Preakness on Saturday evening at Pimlico. It finds an embattled sport, an embattled city and an embattled racetrack all in desperate need of the same things: a great race free of controversy, a champion worthy of the blanket of black-eyed Susans, a sparkling story line to distract everyone, even if temporarily, from all the problems.

And the person sitting at the intersection of all those hopes, it would seem, is Baffert — the man who is at once the biggest human star in the sport, the trainer with the consensus best horse in the field and the most prominent (if a bit, pardon the pun, improbable) booster of the city of Baltimore on the grounds at Pimlico this week.

“When you come to Baltimore — I mean, first of all, it’s a pretty city,” Baffert said. “You come here, and everyone welcomes you. I mean, in Louisville, everybody welcomes you there also. But it’s just a different vibe. This is the only race, win, lose or draw, where you leave here like: ‘Well, it was fun. I enjoyed it. Maybe we didn’t do well but …’”

For the sport, Baffert’s winning the Preakness for a record eighth time behind Improbable on Saturday is the best hope for moving past the acrimonious aftermath of the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago — when Maximum Security crossed the finish line first only to be disqualified following a 22-minute review by Churchill Downs stewards, with Country House named the winner.

Neither Maximum Security nor Country House is in Saturday’s 13-entry field — the largest here since 2011 — making this the first Preakness in 23 years without the Derby winner. In their absence, Baffert’s Improbable, who ran fourth in the Derby — his third straight defeat following three straight wins to open his career — is the morning-line favorite at 5-2 out of the fourth post position. Jockey Mike Smith, who rode Justify to the Triple Crown for Baffert a year ago, will be atop Improbable on Saturday after riding 10th-place finisher Cutting Humor in the Derby.

“I feel like we’re favored by default,” said Elliott Walden, co-owner of Improbable. “But this horse has a great résumé. He ran very well in the Derby without hitting the board.”

Among the other top contenders Saturday are War of Will, the horse most directly affected by the sideways move that got Maximum Security disqualified in the Derby and the second morning-line favorite at 4-1; Alwaysmining (8-1), seeking to make history as the first Maryland-bred Preakness champ in 36 years and whose trainer, Kelly Rubley, hopes to become the first female trainer to win the race; and the intriguing Warrior’s Charge (12-1), who wasn’t originally nominated for the Triple Crown but whose owners paid $150,000 to enter the Preakness following a dazzling performance at Oaklawn Park last month.

“I think he’s one of the best horses,” Baffert said Thursday of Improbable. “I’ve come in here before feeling like I had it over them. But this one, he’s a nice horse who needs to improve. I don’t feel like he’s a [clear] favorite. He’s just one of the top horses, and they’ve got to make somebody the favorite. … What we have here is a lot of parity.”

While there are prominent trainers who routinely skip the Preakness following the Derby (unless, of course, they won it), Baffert has never let the quick, two-week turnaround between races dissuade him — though it is worth noting he saddled two other horses in the Derby, Game Winner and Roadster, and both are skipping the Preakness for physical reasons.

Baffert, who was raised on a ranch in Nogales, Ariz., and lives in Los Angeles, brought his first horse to Pimlico in 1996, finishing fourth — a “bad fourth,” he specified — with Cavonnier. But a love affair with the city was underway. He has seen Baltimore at its most desperate and wounded, winning here with American Pharoah in 2015, less than a month after the death in police custody of Freddie Gray that led to civic unrest.

“We thought maybe they weren’t even going to run the Preakness,” Baffert recalled.

This spring finds both Baltimore and Pimlico, the 149-year-old racetrack northeast of downtown, in new states of desperation. The city is struggling amid soaring murder rates and with former mayor Catherine Pugh under state and federal investigation on corruption allegations. Now it is in danger of losing the Preakness after the 2020 race, as the Stronach Group, which owns both Pimlico and Laurel Park, seeks to shift the race to the latter course — a potential move that has met widespread resistance from Baltimore political leaders.

But Pimlico’s crumbling infrastructure remains a major issue, with this year’s problems including the closing of some 7,000 grandstand seats because of “structural weakness” and a water main that burst in front of the building just this week, necessitating emergency repairs. A recent economic study concluded it would cost $424 million to rebuild Pimlico for the purpose of continuing to host the Preakness, and Stronach has said it isn’t worth the expenditure for a track that hosts just 12 days of live racing per year.

Amid the squabbling between local interests and the frequent grumbling among horse racing insiders about the decrepit state of the old racetrack, Baffert remains an unlikely advocate for Pimlico’s enduring charm and its continued hosting of the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

“I’m a traditionalist. I don’t like change,” he said Friday. “Baltimore is a sports town. Losing the Preakness would be tough. I feel like [the race] would lose a little bit. I don’t know if it would be the same [in Laurel]. Are people going to show up? What if they don’t show up? That’s what I’m worried about.”

And then, you could almost see Baffert’s mind moving to his Inner Harbor hotel and his favorite downtown steakhouse, where he might just need a table for 20 again come late Saturday night.

“I’ve never been to Laurel. They say it’s nice out there,” he said. “Where would we stay? I guess you’d have to rent a motor home to stay out there? I don’t know.”

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