In horse racing and betting, the track is important and there are more than a few differences between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The size of the field, the media attention and the public interest all spring to mind. One of the biggest differences, however, is in the two host tracks. Churchill Downs is one of the true treasures of the horse racing world, and remains at the forefront of the sport. Pimlico used to be a great track as well. Movie fans will remember that it was at Pimlico that Seabiscuit beat War Admiral, and back then it was a temple of horse racing. Since then, though, it has fallen on harder days. It is far from the epicenter of the sport, the meet is short and not very influential, and the maintenance staff at the place certainly doesn’t seem to be the hardest working people in America. In short, Pimlico isn’t the nicest track in North America. If it weren’t for the Preakness it wouldn’t be relevant. If it weren’t for the Preakness it likely wouldn’t exist.
Besides the prestige of the two tracks there are tangible, physical differences that you need to keep in mind when handicapping the Preakness. Here are four:
Turns – It’s a widely held and often reported belief that the turns are tighter at the Pimlico track than they are at other tracks – specifically Churchill Downs. In a geographical sense that isn’t actually true. Both tracks are one mile ovals, and the shape of the turns is essentially the same. There are some key differences, though, that make Pimlico’s corners seem tighter, which have an impact on how races are run on the track. The first and biggest of those is the banking of the turns. At most tracks the corners are slightly banked. It’s not as steep as at a Nascar oval, but it typically ranges between about four and six percent. Pimlico’s turns aren’t nearly as banked.
I don’t want to get into a physics lesson, but the important thing to remember is that a banked turn makes it easier to maintain your speed and even accelerate around turns because the banking helps you maintain your path. Because of this, horses find it much easier to make a move around the corner because they can maintain or improve their speed while turning. On a flatter track, horses can’t be as aggressive while turning. That means that the horse that leads going into the turn has a better chance of being in the lead coming out of that turn because other horses will find it more difficult to challenge him. It’s too simplistic to say that that means that front runners are going to win the Preakness – that’s not always the case. What it does mean, though, is that you need to consider what impact the lack of banking could have, and how it will change the texture of the race. Horses that might be very attractive at a track like Churchill Downs may not be nearly as attractive at Pimlico.
Rail – Another reason that the turns feel tighter is that the track is narrower. Churchill Downs is 80 feet wide while Preakness is just 70 feet. That’s a big part of the reason why the field is smaller in the Preakness than the Belmont. The narrower track combined with the lower banking makes it seem like the outside rail is much closer in than at other tracks. It’s mostly an optical illusion, but it can be really intimidating for a jockey who isn’t used to the track. Since the large majority of top riders only ride at Pimlico once or at most twice a year, this can be a real issue.
Stretch – The stretch at Pimlico is just over 80 feet shorter than the one at Churchill Downs. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you add that to the fact that the Preakness is 1/16 of a mile shorter than the Derby, and that throughbreads find it harder to build momentum in the final turn you have a race that doesn’t tend to favor the dramatic moves from the back of the field nearly as much as the Derby does.
Training – Trainers do not like being at Pimlico. The barns are old and not as nice as at other places. There are no top national trainers based at Pimlico, so it’s not a familiar place for the trainers, and not a particularly comfortable one. Most trainers are much happier as a result arriving at Churchill Downs well before the Derby than they are arriving at Pimlico any sooner than they absolutely have to. That means that before the Derby most horses have had at least a work or two over the Churchill track, and we have some sense of how they like the surface. At the Preakness, though, it’s not at all uncommon to see a horse head to Pimlico late in the week before the race. That means they won’t have a serious work over the surface, and we are forced to speculate on whether they will suit the track. That can influence the outcome of the horse race.