Photo above: Preakness horses wait in the driving rain while track personnel set up the starting gate. (Anthony C. Hayes)
The 140th running of the Preakness may have ended on a rain-drenched note, but neither the suddenly muddy track nor the hijinks of scores of infield inebriants could squelch the spirits of 131,680 fans who made their way to Pimlico for the storied event. In the end, American Pharoah kept his Triple Crown hopes alive; taking the lead early on and then comfortably winning the featured race by seven lengths.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many in the crowd viewed this year’s Preakness as a way to finally exhale after Baltimore’s recent riots. Even so, police and private security personnel were there to make sure the celebration did not get too out of hand.
Upper Marlboro residents John Henry – 29, and Joe Lehnen – 31, brought their pre-teen daughters up for the infield festivities.
“It’s a pretty packed place,” said Henry. “There’s a lot to do here and it’s a lot of fun.” Surveying the somewhat inebriated crowd, Henry added, “I wasn’t sure what to expect. The other side would probably be better for small children.”
Lehnen concurred, “It’s a good time, but not really for kids on the infield. I didn’t do any betting, but I should have bet the number five horse since he won twice. But it’s all good.”
Waldorf, Maryland’s Bennie Caldwell – 46, was in the infield, attending his very first Preakness.
“So far, it looks like an outdoor concert. I don’t really bet or even go to the track, so this is more of a bucket list item. Parking was interesting, but I got in. The next time I would probably go up into the stands. I’ve seen what it’s like down here in the field.”
Preakness brings out the crazies
A sea of humanity crowded in front of the main stage as Armin van Buuren, the world’s most popular electronic music DJ, turned up the beat for InfieldFest. Also taking an apparent beating was one luckless individual this reporter observed being tended to by medical personnel.
The Lifestar EMT’s were quite skilled at stopping the man’s profuse facial bleeding, but less learned in the clear language of the First Amendment. One EMT repeatedly physically blocked this credentialed reporter – obscuring the pulverized pugilist – while another simply shouted, “He’s a medical patient. It’s against the law. Take a walk.”
By 5pm, the crowds in the infield had began to noticeably thin out.
Near the entrance tunnel, Stevensville, Maryland’s Paige Biesel and Hailey Dove were taking their own measure of the exiting herd. Hailey said she was attending her second Preakness; Paige her first.
“Were not done for the day, but as far as the partying, we’ve kinda settled down a bit,” admitted Paige.
“I’ve seen a lot of people passed out, but luckily nobody that I know,” said Hailey.
Tara Thompson – a college student from Howard County – was also relaxing near the tunnel; awaiting the return of her boyfriend.
“This is my first Preakness. It’s a little scary. I’m not 21 yet, and so I came here and I was like ‘Whoa it’s kinda crazy’. There are a lot of crazy people, so I was a little afraid. But it was fun. I came with my boyfriend who is 23. He’s experienced this before, so it was fine. I know a lot has happened here lately in Baltimore, but it’s OK. I would come back because I love this city and I love living in Maryland.”
When asked if Tara had an affinity for betting the ponies, she replied, “I actually own my own horse. Obviously, I’m never gonna race horses, but I love them. I ride western, which is perfect for me.”
A different vibe in the grandstands
In the grandstands, Esther Young and Ben Harris were busy manning their iced concession beer cooler. Strike that. It’s Esther Harris. Ben reminded his bride that they recently tied the knot.
“He’s got a point,” offered a flummoxed Esther. “It’s Harris now. We just got married! We were volunteers together in AmeriCorps. That’s how we met.”
Esther said that she and Ben work for Jet Services – the vending company that does sporting events around Baltimore. “We do the Orioles games, the Ravens, the Grand Prix race. Well, they don’t have the race anymore. We’re having a real good day. It’s nice and hot, and people want their beer!”
Robin and Tim Miller of Westminster said they have been Preakness regulars for about 8 years – always on the grandstand side. When asked if they were betting, Robin laughingly replied, “We’re betting but we’re not winning.” As for the event itself, Robin observed, “It’s awesome. We love the atmosphere; we love the people. It’s just a great time for everybody. We love Baltimore, and we love coming back here every year.”
One grandstand stalwart – Sonny Aponte, 33 of Reisterstown – told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that he is a lifelong fan of the Preakness. Sonny said that, for the most part, he was enjoying the annual outing but qualified his enthusiasm by noting ongoing issues with the track.
“My family has been sitting in these first three rows since the 1960’s. I love the Preakness at Pimlico but, I dunno, the lines are horrible. I don’t even like complaining, but given the money they are making, there should be more bathrooms. Or at least update them. To be standing at the same urinal I used when I was sixteen years old, yeah, they could probably update that. This is all corporate controlled now, and I know they are making a ton of money, so some updates to things like the bathrooms and concessions would be nice.”
Sonny also mentioned the disorder he encountered when he arrived for the day.”
“I got here at 11:00 and filed to the back of the line, but because the gates don’t go all the way back, you’ve got 150 people cutting in line in front of you. But what are you gonna do? I wouldn’t go any place else than Pimlico for the Preakness.
“I never bet, so I never win. But I never lose, either.”
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at The Washington Herald and an occasional contributor to the Voice of Baltimore, Tony’s poetry, humor and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Magic Octopus Magazine; Destination Maryland, and Tales of Blood and Roses.