By Joe Drape

New York Times News Service

BALTIMORE — The deep breaths came fast and furious in the opening moments of the 144th running of the Preakness Stakes, and for good reason: John Velazquez, a Hall of Fame jockey, was airborne one moment and in the dirt the next after his colt, Bodexpress, broke out of the starting gate like a rodeo horse rather than a thoroughbred.

This old, tradition-steeped American sport could not withstand another catastrophe or controversy. Dead horses, too many of them, have drawn a bull’s-eye around its existence. A multimillion-dollar disqualification in the Kentucky Derby had first confused and then angered casual sports fans who tune in to horse racing for the five weeks in the spring that the Triple Crown commands their attention.

Horse racing is on the ropes. Big-time.

When Velazquez rolled and then popped to his feet, thoroughbred lovers were given permission, for at least the next 1 minute, 54.34 seconds, if not exactly to enjoy a horse race then at least to wish the horses a safe journey around Pimlico, a historic — read: dilapidated and old — racetrack.

They did, and the middle jewel of the Triple Crown managed to deliver a satisfying, even redemptive story. The winner, War of Will, hugged the rail for most of the 13⁄16-mile distance, just as he did in the Kentucky Derby, before scooting to the middle of the track and holding off the challenge of a long shot named Everfast. War of Will’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, rubbed his colt’s neck and trained his eyes between the horse’s ears.

“I was just hoping we’d hold on,” he said. “I didn’t want to look back.”

It is easy to see why.

Two weeks ago, beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, War of Will lost a chance at victory after tangling with Maximum Security as Gaffalione and his colt turned for home in the 145th running of the Derby, America’s most famous horse race.

Maximum Security crossed the finish line first and appeared to be the emphatic winner until three Kentucky stewards, horse racing’s version of referees, ruled that the colt had jumped a puddle and impeded the progress of War of Will and two other horses.

Maximum Security was disqualified, and his jockey, Luis Saez, was suspended for 15 days. In the days since, the owners of Maximum Security, Gary and Mary West, have filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that the disqualification be reversed.

Mark Casse, the trainer of War of Will, took the Derby brouhaha in stride until the Wests and some of the betting public started pointing the fingers at Gaffalione and his colt. It did not sit well with Casse.

“I felt joy and relief that we didn’t have the most disastrous incident in American horse racing history,” he said.

Casse was right to be defiant. He thinks War of Will might have won the Derby. “If it wasn’t for the incident,” he said, “it would have been a great race down the lane.”

He did not care if this year’s Preakness was a low-wattage affair. He did not care that Maximum Security was not here and that neither was Country House, the runner-up in the Derby who was declared the official winner.

He was not going to apologize, either, that for the first time since 1951, the second leg of the Triple Crown did not include any of the first four horses that crossed the finish line in the Derby.

“We just won the Preakness,” he said. “I really don’t care who was in it.”

If Casse and Gaffalione felt as if they helped avert disaster in Kentucky and deserved some accolades at Pimlico, no one could blame them. Of late, any news about horse racing has been bad news.

On Friday, a 3-year-old filly named Congrats Gal died soon after pulling up and finishing last in the Miss Preakness Stakes.

23241062