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Baltimore needs a smooth, fun Preakness Stakes

With Baltimore still healing from riots, American Pharoah goes for the second leg of the Triple Crown

For the first time in 140 years of the Preakness Stakes, the needs of this city trump the needs of horse racing.

It was 20 days ago that the pictures went around the world. Freddie Gray died. Soon, fires burned. Police sirens screamed. Looters carried armfuls of things they probably didn't even need out of broken storefront windows.

The Preakness, as the middle jewel of the sport's Triple Crown, is a major imprint in this city. Major sports facilities in the Inner Harbor here that serve as homes to the NFL's Ravens and baseball's Orioles stand as others.

So does legendary poet Edgar Allan Poe. He lived and worked here in the 1830s and his home, near the Inner Harbor, is now a museum. Baltimore famously quoths the raven nevermore.

The rioting took place a long stone's throw — fitting but sad term here — from the city's symbolic heartbeat, the Inner Harbor. Nor is Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, far away.

The situation was keynoted Thursday. Giving the invocation at a breakfast gathering was William Lori, archbishop of Baltimore. He asked the higher powers for good weather and a great day. He said that would be greatly helpful to his city's healing.

The racing side of the Preakness, flourishing for years in the Triple Crown's five weeks of horseflesh torture, is well positioned to come through for the archbishop and his city. The all-consuming focus on the elusive Triple Crown can take a back seat.

The star of Saturday's 1 3/16-mile show has the right stuff to carry the day. Plus, Bob Baffert has the horses, so to speak.

His American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby and will be the betting favorite when the starting gate opens about 3:15 p.m. (Pacific). Baffert also has a second strong entry in Dortmund, who won the Santa Anita Derby and was unbeaten until his third-place finish in the Derby.

Both have trained well here. No hint of injury or fatigue. Baffert, as masterful with words as with horses, has repeatedly told the media, making sure the people of Baltimore hear it, that "The Preakness is the best. I love it."

Saturday's story line is helped by conflict.

In Wednesday's draw, American Pharoah drew the inside post and Dortmund No. 2. Baffert likes inside starting positions like ingrown toenails.

That gave the other six horses in the field reason for hope, especially Firing Line, who finished second in the Derby and has been on the verge of a big-time winners' circle appearance several times.

Firing Line's connections are interesting.

The horse is trained by Simon Callaghan, who, at 31, is the youngest trainer in the field. The jockey is Gary Stevens, who, at 52, is the oldest jockey in the field.

Stevens, who won the Preakness in 2013 aboard 15-1 shot Oxbow, has been here all week, sizing things up. That's not the usual jockey role, but then Stevens is not the usual jockey. His extended presence here is likely to influence gamblers. By late Friday, Firing Line had overtaken Dortmund as the second betting choice.

Firing Line's owner is Arnold Zetcher, whose closeness to Baffert, his main rival Saturday, is hardly a secret. Much of Zetcher's ownership success has been with Baffert-trained horses.

At Wednesday's draw, where teams normally sit together, Zetcher sat alone with Baffert. The next day, Zetcher summed up his situation with Baffert-like humor.

"My problem is like a cheerleading call," he said. "I have Baffert to the right, Baffert to the left. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight."

Added to this soap opera of horses and personalties is one Wayne Lukas and a horse named Mr. Z. Lukas is 79, going on 30. He has won six Preaknesses and wasn't happy that, in race No. 140, he had no shot for No. 7.

His Derby horse, Mr. Z, had finished well back in the ever-present mess that a 20-horse Derby field leaves. Mr. Z's owner and namesake, Ahmed Zayat, wasn't interested in having his horse be an impediment to a Triple Crown. Zayat also owns American Pharoah.

Lukas vanned a handful of horses from his stable in Louisville to run on Preakness day, but not in the Preakness. Somehow — maybe gremlins? — Mr. Z ended up on the van.

"There's great scenery along the way," Lukas said. "I wanted him to see it."

By midday after Mr. Z's arrival, Lukas had worked his magic, Zayat had sold Mr. Z to Lukas' main client, Calumet Farm, and Mr. Z drew the No. 3 post position, next to Baffert's star entries.

Once he was officially in the race, Lukas' mood soared, followed by one-liners. He told the Thursday morning Alibi Breakfast crowd that he recently said to his wife, (No. 5), "Honey, did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams you'd be married to a man who has won six Preaknesses? To which she replied that I wasn't in her wildest dreams."

Danzig Moon, fifth in the Derby and 15-1 here, will start to the right of Mr. Z. To his right is Tale Of Verve, a one-time winner with the longest odds, 30-1.

Between Tale Of Verve and the outside-posted Firing Line are Bodhisattva and Divining Rod, also likely to leave the gate as longshots. None of the three started in the Derby. The last horse to win the Preakness without starting in the Derby was the filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009.

Divining Rod is owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, whose last Preakness entry was Derby winner Barbaro in 2006. The '06 Preakness was where Barbaro so infamously broke down.

Baltimore doesn't want, nor need, that sort of thing.

Weather permitting, horses healthy, and Baffert and Lukas on their verbal game, it won't get it.

And the healing can continue.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @Dwyrelatimes

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