The Preakness seems to get knocked around pretty good these days. Everybody has an opinion on how the event — and Maryland horse racing in general — could be improved in ways that would not only increase attendance but also ensure that the state holds onto the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Reading and listening to some of the people who have weighed in on the matter has led many of us to believe that thoroughbred racing in Maryland is on virtual life support. While there may be some unfortunate truth to that (I won’t get into the politics of the slots issue, but it’s clear that tracks in neighboring states are siphoning a good number of horse racing fans — not to mention gamblers — from Maryland) I found Saturday’s 133rd Preakness to be a glorious event, a happening of which Baltimore and the Maryland horse racing industry should be proud.
I’m embarrassed to say that I attended my very first Preakness on Saturday, which I realize is a pathetically overdue feat for someone who claims to be a long-time Baltimore sports fan. Listing excuses for previously failing to experience the Preakness in person would sound like John Belushi pleading for his life to Carrie Fisher in the Blues Brothers (“I ran out of gas…I got a flat tire…I didn’t have change for cab fare…an old friend stopped in from out of town…someone stole my car…there was an earthquake…a terrible flood…locusts! It wasn’t my fault, I swear to God!”), but for whatever reason I just never got around to making the pilgrimage to “Old Hill Top” on the third Saturday in May. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been to Pimlico plenty of times and I’ve also taken in local horse racing at Laurel, Timonium (does that even count?) and Delmarva Downs, not to mention a few trips to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita during my brief residency in Southern California (one of my roommates in Huntington Beach happened to own a couple of thoroughbreds). So while I consider myself a fan of horse racing, I was indeed a Preakness virgin until Saturday.
I don’t know about you, but when Baltimore hosts a big event, I get a little nervous, almost like a parent watching their child perform in a play. I want Baltimore to look good in front of national t.v. cameras. I want out-of-towners to be treated well (unless they’re Steelers, Yankees or Red Sox fans, of course). And Saturday, I wanted people to think, “Why in the world would they ever want to move the Preakness out of Baltimore?” So Saturday morning I was excited, but also a little apprehensive because I didn’t know exactly what to expect from my first Preakness experience.
I’m happy to report that the entire day not only met but exceeded my expectations. Though the day began with a little aggravation (I still don’t understand why there were no police officers directing traffic along Park Heights, by Rogers and Hayward avenues), we made it into Lot 1 relatively painlessly. Upon arriving on the grounds, I was pretty impressed with the friendliness of the event staffers and the festive atmosphere. Some of the first sights I witnessed included:
• A hard-working concession vendor happily listing all the ingredients in a Black-Eyed Susan for some out-of-towners unfamiliar with the official cocktail of the Preakness — all the while holding what had to be a pretty heavy rack of souvenir glasses filled with the drink. I wouldn’t have been shocked to hear the guy say, “It’s the official drink lady. Just buy one before my arms fall off.” So the vendor’s patience was definitely a pleasant surprise.
• As we waited to cross the track into the “tent village” area of the infield, we had a nice conversation with several S.A.F.E. management personnel. When my buddy asked one of them if she had any tips for the day, the woman replied, “Stay away from tall blondes.” I bring this up because the staffers there — at least the ones with whom I came into contact — were knowledgeable about the event, the sport and the facilities, and also seemed happy to be working that day. Unfortunately, I don’t often get the same feeling from their equivalents at Ravens and Orioles games.
• I couldn’t help but notice the book resting on a duffle bag stationed at a cameraman’s feet. Between races – and I assume bets — the cameraman was apparently reading a hardback called “Debt Cures.” I was hoping I wouldn’t be shopping for a copy after the races.
The undercard races kept us busy while we anticipated the Preakness Stakes, and what was surely to be Big Brown’s second step to history. I placed my wagers using two main criteria: my familiarity with the jockeys and my wife’s and daughter’s birthdays (both the 16th), but alas the 1-6 combo was a loser all day, even when Edgar Prado, Kent Desmoreaux or Jeremy Rose was involved.
Of course, what’s a trip to the Preakness without taking in the sights in the legendary infield? So between a couple of races, I ventured over to a chain-link fence that separated the hard-core partiers in the infield from the somewhat more reserved spectators in the tented village. To say I felt like a visitor to the zoo, gazing at the animals through the protection of a metal barrier is just too obvious of a metaphor, but appropriate nonetheless. As a veteran of many Hunt Cups and summer rock-n-roll concerts, I can’t say I saw anything I hadn’t seen before: lots of sun-burned 20-something-year-olds wandering around with coolers, yelling the occasional expletive at each other. I’m sure there were plenty of brawls, and hundreds of people spending Sunday tending to their wounds and trying to remember why they were fighting in the first place, but what can you say? Boys will be boys. As for the girls…probably the strangest thing I witnessed was a scantily-clad young lady stumbling through the crowd with the word ”GIRL” written in magic marker on her upper arm. Not sure what that was all about, but I can’t imagine how anyone could’ve mistaken her for anything else.
As far as the big race was concerned, my brother-in-law and I pooled our remaining dollars and took Big Brown in a Trifecta Wheel that cost us 220 bucks. Looking at the board, it was clearly Big Brown and everyone else, and we were hoping second and third would go to some big long shots. They didn’t and we only netted about $116 for our troubles. But, hey, we cashed in and may have witnessed history, and I’ll certainly be rooting for Big Brown at the Belmont in a couple of weeks. I’d love to see history made in person, but unfortunately I think an old friend might be stopping in from out of town.