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Racing may have found its four-legged savior

BALTIMORE - It is a celebration of America's vices, a trio of events where the country rubs elbows with the Guys and Dolls who spend their time looking for the angles and figuring the odds. Horse racing's Triple Crown is a nation's walk on the wild side, and the second jewel in the crown - the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course - might never have been wilder - or better - than it was yesterday. After 10 horses ran for 1 3/16 miles, the winner of the Preakness Stakes came down to simply the rhythm of one horse's head movement. As Free House's head was bobbing up in his stride, Silver Charm's was moving down - and forward - as they crossed the finish line and Silver Charm claimed victory in one of the most exciting Preakness Stakes ever. Captain Bodgit was right behind the duo in the second closest three-horse finish over the 122 years of the Preakness. "To steal a line from my father, from the Sunday Silence and Easy Goer duel in 1989, this is the best that our sport has to offer," said Joe De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses. With that nose pointed in the right direction, Silver Charm is now poised to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, should he triumph three weeks from now in the Belmont Stakes. And the aura that comes with the prospects of a Triple Crown winner - there have been only 11 - captures the attention of the sports world, which couldn't come at a better time for the struggling Sport of Kings. "I think this is just great for horse racing," said Robert Lewis, one of Silver Charm's owners. Racing needs a Triple Crown winner, or at least the possibility of one. Competition from other forms of the burgeoning gambling industry has been delivering a slow death to racing and those in the business, such as De Francis, are looking to one form doing the killing - slot machines - to save them. Maryland racing people are feeling the pressure of slot machines all around them. Slots at Dover Downs and Delaware Park have been a huge success. Slots will be at Charles Town in West Virginia in June, and a push is on in the Pennsylvania legislature to put slot machines in tracks there. It's inevitable then, despite Gov. Parris Glendening's opposition, that slots will come to tracks in Maryland. That's too bad because they are souless devices that have no place in a theater with such color and drama. On a normal Saturday at Pimlico, about 10,000 people show up. Yesterday there were nearly 89,000. Many of them don't even see the race from their raucous infield parties, but they come anyway because the track is the place where men with cheap cigars and crooked noses - unfortunately, a dying breed - ply their trade, an interactive Guys and Dolls. That's the image of the track. Tell me, what image do you think of with slot machines? Little old ladies losing their Social Security checks, and John Thompson hoping to cash in. What do the losers get for their money? Bells and lights. Anyone who dropped money on yesterday's Preakness got a lot more than that. The minutes leading up to the horses getting into the starting gate is much like the anticipation in the arena before a heavyweight title fight. The call of an exciting horse race is the best sportscasting in the business. And then once in a while, you have a battle for the ages like yesterday's, when your heart is pumping with each stride of the horse you picked only to have the race end so close that you don't know if you won. Bob Baffert, Silver Charm's silver-haired trainer, didn't know if his horse had won either. "I wasn't sure," he said. "I looked at the board, but I wasn't sure." Baffert's caution is understandable - his horse, Cavonnier, was on the losing end of a photo finish at last year's Kentucky Derby. He would just as soon not have to deal with another photo in the final leg of the Triple Crown, but his jockey would welcome a few photos before then. Said Gary Stevens: "I'd love to see thoroughbred racing back on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine." The last time that happened was 1973, with the great Secretariat. People cried when Secretariat died. The only tears shed over slot machines is when the rent money is lost. The one-armed bandits may eventually find their way to Pimlico, but they should be disarmed on Preakness Day.

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