BALTIMORE — Fans are back at Pimlico Race Course to witness another chance at horse racing history, so this year's Preakness Stakes will feel a lot more like normal for the second jewel of the Triple Crown — even if everything carries a giant asterisk.
The limited capacity of 10,000 fans expected for Saturday evening's race is far less than the crowd of 100,000 that usually packs the grandstand and infield, and it is a fraction of the 50,000 who saw Medina Spirit win the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs. The Bob Baffert-trained colt was cleared Friday to run in the second leg of the Triple Crown after failing a drug test that followed his victory in Louisville.
Now all eyes are on Pimlico and the Preakness to see what will happen next in horse racing's latest chapter of drama.
"If Medina Spirit goes and wins the Preakness on Saturday, the general public is going to just immediately say, 'Oh, well, look, there's still something funny going on,'" NBC Sports betting analyst Matt Bernier said. "If he doesn't run well for whatever reason, the general public will still look at it and say, 'See, something funny was going on in the Kentucky Derby.' It's a no-win situation for Bob Baffert, for everyone involved with the horse and for the industry as a whole."
Because of the presence of the Derby winner with a Triple Crown still possible when the starting gates open, the Preakness is usually the safest bet on the sport's calendar. The past two years broke that trend: the races were held out of order and without fans in 2020 because of the pandemic, and the 2019 Preakness came out on the short end due to a Derby mess after first-place finisher Maximum Security was disqualified at Churchill Downs and Country House was named the winner — though both horses skipped the Preakness.
Medina Spirit is a tainted champion after 21 picograms of the steroid betamethasone were found in his blood sample on May 1, a development that didn't become public until last weekend. But he'll get another opportunity in Maryland after he and stablemate Concert Tour passed three additional drug tests ahead of the Preakness agreed to by Baffert and state racing officials.
"While we acknowledge the challenging circumstances that prompted this further need for transparency, it reflects, above all else, that the principles of integrity, accountability, and safety in our sport are nonnegotiable," said Craig Fravel, CEO of 1/ST Racing, a branding arm of the Stronach Group that owns Pimlico.
Medina Spirit opened as the 9-5 morning line favorite with Concert Tour the 5-2 second choice. By Friday evening, Midnight Bourbon had become the 5-2 favorite.
"I've got people calling me: 'I really like your horse,'" owner Ron Winchell of Winchell Thoroughbreds said of Midnight Bourbon. "It's hard not to be overly optimistic."
Aside from the circus surrounding Medina Spirt and Baffert — the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame member is not in Baltimore and has left assistant Jimmy Barnes in charge — there is plenty of optimism about 10 horses running in front of fans again at the Preakness. It may not reach the level of party that Louisville put on at the start of the month and won't feature a jammed infield, but the Black-Eyed Susan drinks will be flowing again at Pimlico.
"Welcome, to say the least," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Midnight Bourbon. "It was such a rush getting back to during the Derby this year. We just hadn't had fans or anything, and you almost weren't ready for it. But the energy level leading up to the race, during the race, wow, it was so welcome. And we needed it."
Last year, the Preakness was held on Oct. 3 and as the last Triple Crown race after the Derby was run on Labor Day weekend. The Belmont Stakes, typically the finale, was held on June 20.
While the race calendar is in order again, the absence of Baffert — who has trained two Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 — makes things a little bit less normal. Not that his assistant is concerned about it.
"I'm used to it," Barnes said. "I travel all the time. I'm always on the road, and if Bob's there sometimes, great. If Bob can't make it, then I just have to pick up the slack and just march on and try to do my best and try to produce a win."
Not counting last year, Baffert-trained winners of the Kentucky Derby are undefeated in the Preakness. Baffert's Authentic lost a stretch duel to filly Swiss Skydiver last October at Pimlico.
There were no fans present to see that, though, something 1/ST Racing chief marketing officer David Wilson said didn't feel right.
"It just felt strange," he said. "It's going to be great to have fans back, and we're kind of treading slowly. And I hope by Preakness 147, we'll have a packed house.