by Penelope Miller, America's Best Racing
I’ve been extremely fortunate to attend both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont during my life-long love affair with horse racing, but I’d never been able to make it to the Preakness until last weekend.
As I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike on my way to Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was eager, because I’d heard from my friends in the press box that the folks at Old Hilltop (Pimlico’s affectionate nickname) were some of the nicest racetrack staff in the game and that the Preakness was the most fun event of the three jewels of the Triple Crown to cover. I was also a little nervous, since I had never taken photos at Pimlico before and I wasn’t sure of the best place from which to shoot. But most of all, I was little-kid-on-Christmas-Eve excited because I love visiting new tracks, and to visit Pimlico on Preakness day was pretty much the best thing I could imagine.
I spent Friday at the historic Maryland track just getting the lay of the land. I met up with the rest of the ABR crew at the Stakes Barn, conveniently located trackside, and saw everything from the Budweiser Clydesdales to the Arabian horses who would run on the Preakness undercard. Then it was off to visit Team O’Neill and interview the trainer himself (and catch a glimpse of pony horse extraordinaire, Lava Man!)
When Saturday dawned, I got to the track at about 7:30 and set up shop in the press box. Then the day became a whirlwind- I was running back and forth trying to get photos of everything from the InfieldFest scene to the pony horses to fans in their finery as well as make sure I got photos of all of the stakes races. The rest of my time was spent tweeting and Facebooking all of these photos as well as all of the other great content that the ABR video team - which includes Eclipse Award winner John Hennegan - was churning out.
When it came time for the big race, I watched and took photos from just outside the jockeys’ room, which overlooks the finish line. As I readied my camera during the epic stretch drive between I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, I was almost overcome with excitement. As those two game horses got to the finish line, every person at Pimlico was on their feet screaming. I depressed the shutter as I’ll Have Another got his neck in front, lowered my trusty Nikon, and then allowed myself to jump up and down and scream. Then it was a dead-on sprint to my computer in the press box to upload the photos to our social media outlets as fast as possible and start watching the Preakness take over national and global trending on Twitter.
After a while, the ABR crew headed down to what is easily the coolest event in all of sports anywhere. (You may think I’m biased, but read on before you judge.) In the Stakes Barn area at Pimlico, there is a huge post-Preakness party, and everyone is invited. Winning trainer Doug O’Neill was hanging out with fans from the Infield while owner J. Paul Reddam was congratulated by TV personalities. Kentucky bluebloods were high-fiving grooms from neighboring barns. Pickup trucks were brought out so people could sit on tailgates, beers were opened and toasts to I’ll Have Another were heard around the barns.
It was totally magical. What other sport offers fans the chance to hang out with the top athletes in a social context? I mean, when the Giants win a playoff game, does Eli Manning let people from the nosebleed seats into the locker room and offer them a cold one? Yet there was Doug O’Neill signing autographs and answering questions from fans who just happened to wander over after leaving the track. Seriously – it’s that awesome.
And that’s when I realized that that’s what makes the Preakness so special: that sense that anything is possible. Before the race, there’s that wild hope that maybe, maybe the Kentucky Derby winner can do it. But after the race, when I’ll Have Another was cooled out and back in his stall munching hay, there was a feeling of elation that took over the whole track. This could be the Triple Crown year; this could be he next Triple Crown horse. For everyone from new fans to racetrack lifers (and even the jaded sporting press), there was the giddy sense of possibility; and to share that feeling with a sampling of every type of person at the track surrounded by the equine athletes who are at the center of it all was an experience that I hope every Thoroughbred fan can enjoy at least once.
I’ve said it before, and it’s never been truer: I love this game!