Update 3:30 p.m. Saturday: California Chrome has won the Preakness, and now has a chance at the first Triple Crown by any horse in 36 years, since 1978.
Original post: This Saturday California Chrome will race in the Preakness Stakes, continuing his chase for a spot in the history books after his Kentucky Derby win. Right now the horse is an overwhelming favorite, despite coughing a few times after his workout Thursday morning. Veterinarians have cleared him to race, saying the issue is a small blister in his throat.
During the years that I worked at the Baltimore Sun, I was among the legions of reporters sent to Pimlico on a hot Saturday each May to cover the Preakness Stakes. In the Triple Crown trio of races, the Preakness is the one people often forget about. Lacking the snobbery and cachet of the Kentucky Derby and the historical significance of the Belmont Stakes, the role of the Preakness is often reduced to crushing our collective hopes for a Triple Crown winner. (To be fair, though, in the past decade three horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, leaving even the honor of disappointing the masses to the Belmont Stakes.)
Inside Pimlico, the grandstands on the perimeter of the track are for the wine-and-cheese crowd, drawn to the Preakness by a love of racing, gambling or, more often, the social status associated with being there. Between each race, crowds spill inside the concourse to line up at the betting windows and grab a black-eyed Susan cocktail before returning to their seats for the next race. The cycle repeats every half hour, back and forth, all day.
If the grandstands are for the serious racing fans, you might be tempted to call the infield the cheap seats, but really the people there have come for another reason altogether: live music and booze. For a journalist sent to document the wild spectacle of the whole event, Pimlico is like a custard-filled doughnut — the perimeter is fine and fluffy, but the good stuff is in the middle.
My first year out, I made my way inside the track early, hoping to get the lay of the land before the crowds filled in. Passing under the racetrack through a tunnel, the infield came into view. Several stages dotted the landscape, a visible sign of how race organizers are working to turn the event into a legitimate music festival, not just a 10-hour drink-a-thon.
"Can you take our picture?" a woman whined, handing me her camera before hurrying back to a group of middle-aged women wearing denim shorts, halter tops and platform sandals. Each donned a wide brim hat, decorated with dollar-store tchotchkes like plastic fruit, a rubber ducky and artificial flowers.
I waved the group into place and steadied the camera. "One ... Two ...," I called out just as one woman pulled down her top, baring her breasts. "Wooooo!! Go Shannon!" another woman screamed as she poured a beer over her friend. "Heck yeah," bellowed a man walking by. "Three ..." I said, as the shutter clicked.
"Welcome to the Preakness," a colleague told me later as I recounted the story. “Just wait until things really get started.”
Rowdy infields are certainly not unique to the Preakness. When I was in college, frat boys and their sorority girl dates would make a pilgrimage every year to the Kentucky Derby infield, returning sunburned and worn out with tales that usually ended with the phrase, “… and then I passed out.”
The Preakness infield is its own Baltimore variety of crazy. Freakness, some call it.
More than Cinco de Mayo, New Year's Eve or St. Patrick’s Day, the Preakness is the high holy day of binge drinking for Maryland’s party-inclined.
A favorite tradition is the Porta-Potty Run (or the Toilet Run, as we journalists are trained to call it since Porta-Potty is a name brand.) Once everybody is sufficiently drunk, the bravest are hoisted on top of the long rows of portable toilets and sent to run from john to john — racing the guy on the adjacent row of potties. It’s a dangerous tradition that has sent at least a few revelers to the hospital, not to mention petrified countless innocent chaps who were just looking to take a whiz in peace.
Some years ago, crews began spacing out the toilets to try and cut down on the tradition.
But then the jumping started ...
(GIF by The Baltimore Sun)
After sagging attendance at the 2010 race, Preakness organizers decided to appeal to a younger demographic by bringing in a half-man, half-horse mascot named Kegasus. The “party manimal,” as he was also called, sported an ample beer gut, long hair and a nipple ring. He plays the role of pusher, encouraging everyone to let loose, drink a few beers and maybe abandon their morals for the day.
Critics complained the mascot encouraged binge drinking (duh), and race organizers essentially responded, “Exactly!” (Not a direct quote.)
Sadly, it seems the political pressure may have forced Kegasus to that giant glue factory in the sky. There has been no mention of him from organizers and his Twitter account has gone silent.
Even without Kegasus, you can place at least one certain bet this Saturday. The Preakness will be a party.