Fans stream through the tunnel to the infield for the 2013 Preakness Stakes. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
The morning of the 138th Preakness Stakes I was sure it was going to rain. This was a problem. I had no seat to sit in, confined to the madness of the Pimlico infield and exposed to the elements (both natural and human). As the 100,000-plus fans streamed through the gates, security was taking their umbrellas and throwing them in the garbage.
What’s a race fan with an infield ticket to do on a rainy day with no umbrella? Well one option is to purchase a rain poncho for $3 from a young boy standing in the middle of Winner Ave., the street that runs along the west side of the racetrack.
“Hey! White boy with no shirt! White boy with no shirt!” The kid was calling to a shirtless frat boy shuffling along with the crowd moving down Winner Ave. toward the infield entrance. The Kentucky Derby is known for stylish and fancy clothes – even the infielders at Churchill tend to don seersucker and pastels. The Preakness has its fair share of well-dressed race goers. Men in bow ties and women in large hats abound. But the Preakness infield is unlike the Derby infield in every way. With two separate concert stages and several big-name national acts performing throughout the day, the atmosphere is much more like a music festival than a historic horse race.
ONE-OF-A-KIND EXPERIENCE IN PREAKNESS INFIELD
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
A shirtless frat boy doesn’t really stand out so much. But to this young entrepreneur, this shirtless fan was a customer.
“You need a poncho! You gonna get wet!”
“That’s why I don’t have a shirt on! Let’s get wet baby!”
His logic was flawless.
The residents of Winner Ave. are used to this scene. Year after year the infield line takes over their street as tens of thousands of people wind around the racetrack on a slow march to the infield entrance. The residents take advantage by setting up shop and selling water, soda, and home-cooked meals. Many are here from other parts of Baltimore, renting space in yards to hold fundraisers for youth sports teams. One resident had put their speakers in their windows and was DJing records, spinning Eric B. and Rakim and Lil’ Wayne. House after house had tables set up outside offering food and drink to the passersby at prices much cheaper than what awaited them inside.
“Remember your weakness at the Preakness!” A large African American man stood in front of house with a line of white college-aged kids lined up out the door. He held a sign I couldn’t read and was yelling loud enough to hear down the block.
“The restroom is the best room!”
Ah. His sign said “Bathroom $3.”
Raingear for kids who have factored in that they might be taken out of the infield on a stretcher? Not a good business plan. Charging people who have been standing in line drinking beer for an hour to use the restroom? Genius.
“We are Baltimore’s ambassadors. We represent this city.” This was Trevor, the bathroom bellower. He said that Baltimore gets a bad rap, and the folks on Winner Ave. had a rare opportunity to show the world “the friendly side” of the city here in the Preakness line. Bathroom diplomacy seemed to be working. The line coming out of his house included plenty of people I’m sure had never set foot in a black person’s home before. They all seemed happy to be there, though. Why not? If the call of nature could cause so many in the infield to let go of dignity and urinate on the ground in public, surely it could cause a few to let go of racial prejudices and urinate in the comfortable privacy of a working-class African American family’s home.
But is it lucrative? Trevor smiled and opened the lid on a coffee can. It was stuffed full of cash. “And the races ain’t even done yet. Wait ’til they come out!”
Pimlico isn’t a city, it is a neighborhood in northwest Baltimore near the city/county line. There a little more than a thousand people in Pimlico, more than 90% of them black, with a majority of those African American but a growing number from the West Indies and Caribbean. It’s a fairly poor neighborhood, the median income about $23,000, and it shows in the well-kept but aging row homes across from the racetrack along Winner Ave.
The neighborhood that surrounds Pimlico Race Course is poor, but the history that surrounds the racetrack is a rich one, both literally and figuratively.
Appropriately, it all started with a bet. In 1868, the governor of Maryland, Oden Bowie, was an owner of horses and a fan of racing. While attending the races at Saratoga that year he found himself at a dinner party with other wealthy horse owners, each bragging about their yearlings.
Bowie proposed that in two years they bring their yearlings together to race them, the winner of the race hosting the losers for dinner. For the occasion of the race, Bowie pledged to build a brand new racetrack in his home state of Maryland. The track was named for the neighborhood, Pimlico. On opening day in 1870, a horse named Preakness won the first-ever running of the Dinner Party Stakes.
In the heyday of racing at Pimlico, people would hold grand parties on the infield of the course. The infield was raised so that spectators could easily view the whole race, the origin of the nickname “Old Hilltop.” Between races people would sit at tables and have brunch and drink champagne.
Today the Old Hilltop is gone, bulldozed long ago to give fans in the grandstands a clearer view of the track. Gone, too, are the champagne brunches. At the 138th running of the Preakness Stakes fans in the infield instead enjoyed bottomless neon mugs of beer as they stumbled between two stages to see Pitbull or Macklemore perform. A popular shirt in the Preakness infield read “What Horses?”
I ran into Bill and Christina in the infield. They weren’t there to see Pitbull, there were there to see Orb, and they got there early, just as they had for the last 12 years. They live in New York but they have travelled to every Triple Crown race since 2000, hoping to see a Triple Crown winner. Bill, the older of the two, had been to many more editions of the Preakness than that, having recalled to me the time he saw Secretariat’s historic run. More impressive, he insisted, was that he also saw Secretariat lose in the Wood Memorial. These were real horse racing fans, offended by the notion of “What Horses?” They both fully expected Orb to win today and go on to finally capture the Triple Crown.
“This could be the year.” Bill said. “There were a lot of years that should have been the year. Big Brown, Smarty Jones.” The horse he most revered? Without question, “Afleet Alex.” He looked out toward the eighth pole with reverence. “That horse almost threw his rider, I never saw anything like it. What a horse.”
Orb was no Afleet Alex, they assured me. But he may be good enough to beat the rest of these. And what does it matter, anyway? We were horse racing fans. We HAD to root for Orb.
“I never bet against the Derby winner,” said Christina. “But I’m the emotional one. … Bill bet on Da’ Tara against Big Brown.”
As we talked the storm clouds rolled overhead. It seemed we were going to get wet. I asked them why they always sat in the infield.
“It’s cheaper, but it gets pretty crazy,” Christina says.
FESTIVAL ATMOSPHERE IN PREAKNESS INFIELD
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Crazy is an understatement. Already, I had been grabbed by a total stranger who screamed in my face, I saw a woman pass out cold - face first on the ground - then a young man who may not have even known her passed out on top of her while trying to pick her up, I saw a group of men randomly grabbing women’s butts as they walked by then cheering, and I saw a fight. And it wasn’t even the fourth race yet. I mention this to Christina and Bill. They shrug.
“It’s not so bad. Back when they let people bring their own alcohol, this place was a warzone.” Christina jokes. “It was like Baghdad.”
“People would throw full beer cans at people, “ Bill adds. “There were fights all day long. It’s a lot better now that they don’t let you bring in booze.”
I point out to Bill and Christina a medical vehicle driving right behind them, sirens blaring, with a pair of bare legs dangling out the back.
“Well it’s getting late,” Bill says. “It will get worse as people get drunker.”
FANS ENJOY THE MUSIC AT INFIELDFEST
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
I started to worry about the rain and the drunks, so I escaped to the ABRV to try to handicap the early Pick 4 in the creature comforts of the Brand Ambassador’s fancy rig. The RV was really nice and had plenty of TVs, but none of them were tuned to the races at Pimlico because they only got TVG or something. I spent some time with the Racing Form, scrawled out a complicated ticket, then got waylaid on my way out of the rig to go bet by a few of the Brand Ambassadors coming back in after spending some time handing out T-shirts. We talked about New York, the city where I live and the next stop on the ABRV’s tour, and before I knew it someone came in the RV to say the 5th race had already gone off. I got shut out. To add insult to injury my top pick in the 5th race won at 7-1 odds. I went and bet a Pick 3 on the next three races and hit it for a pitiful $50. Meanwhile the Pick 4 that I would have hit paid about $250. On top of all of this bad fortune, there was no good place to see the races out there on the remains of Old Hilltop. It was just reggaeton and hip hop concerts and groups of people randomly screaming “woooo” in every direction.
I had to watch the races on a small television set next to one of the betting windows set up in a corner of the infield. I decided to blame bricking out on the Pick 4 on the damn infield. I headed back through the tunnel to the grandstand.
Pimlico is the second-oldest racetrack in America, behind only the storied Saratoga. But where Saratoga feels old world, Pimlico simply feels old. The wooden floors, the peeling paint. This year, the Maryland Jockey Club announced a $100 million renovation plan for the racetrack that would significantly spruce the joint up.
Not everybody is a fan of the plan. Many people actually like the creaky, old vibe of Pimlico. I have to say I might be among them. The grandstands are wide open and on a long slope, so low to the ground. Despite more than 100,000 in attendance at the 138th Preakness, it felt so much more comfortable in the grandstands and on the apron than at Churchill at the Kentucky Derby - mainly because most of those people were in the very crowded infield instead of in the $125 seats in the grandstands. But even on the apron, it feels like the racetrack is so much closer to the fans than at any other track. You feel like you can reach out and touch the horses. From up on the mezzanine level you can make out expressions on the jockeys’ faces as they cross the finish line.
The old vibe works for me, too. It feels rustic, not musty. It feels old, but in a nostalgic way that isn’t fake, isn’t some modern facsimile of what it was like a hundred years ago. You feel like maybe the table you’re sitting at is actually a hundred years old. I like that, even though it probably isn’t true. I think there’s good mojo in being surrounded by the ghosts of the past, to be leaning over the same bar some other punter leaned over to watch Seabiscuit beat War Admiral in their famous match race in 1938.
I wanted to put that mojo to work for me that day and make some money betting the Pick 4 with the future Triple Crown winner Orb.
I loaded up on Pick 4s and Jackpot Pick 5 tickets, all singled to Orb in the Preakness. After hitting a 24-1 shot in the Dixie Stakes with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ Skyring, I figured my winning tickets could be worth thousands if Orb won the Preakness. That is, if I had bet any with the favorite Sage Valley in the Maryland Sprint Handicap. I guess it wasn’t enough for me to have long-priced horses in the first and third legs of the Pick 4, I had to hit a bomb in every single leg. Despite having Skyring, I had left Sage Valley off and wasn’t alive to a potential $3,000 cash on Orb in the Preakness.
It mattered not with respect to my enthusiasm for Orb’s winning the race. Somehow, I had built up this idea I had of the moment a horse won the Triple Crown as this singular, vital moment in history, and that witnessing it would somehow change me for the better. It had taken on the shape of a religious belief, that a horse could win the Triple Crown, nay, that a horse would win the Triple Crown in my lifetime. Every year my faith was shattered, and every year on the first Saturday in May my faith was renewed.
The result has been news for days now. Oxbow, a horse from Calumet Farm, trained by Lukas, and ridden by Gary Stevens (through a time warp from the 90s?) led the field from wire to wire. Orb ran fourth. The wind was sucked out of the race course. My faith was shattered yet again.
TRIPLE CROWN HOPES DASHED BY OXBOW, HALL OF FAME CONNECTIONS
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
So here I was at “Old Hilltop,” a fistful of dead tickets, right on the finish line watching some Naval Cadets drape the wrong horse in Black-Eyed Susans. Across the track from where I stood was the Pimlico cupola, and beneath it stood Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and the Woodlawn Vase, the trophy he would present to Brad Kelley of Calumet Farm. I was surprised to not see Gov. O’Malley, but it made sense. Brown was running for governor and had already secured O’Malley’s endorsement. What better way to look gubernatorial than to present the Woodlawn Vase at the Preakness? There are few events more Maryland than the Preakness stakes. The procession of Naval Academy members carrying the Black-Eyed Susans to drape over the winner, the Naval Academy glee club leading the crowd in singing “Maryland, My Maryland.”
In 2009, Gov. O’Malley made it a point to say at this same trophy ceremony on national television that Maryland would do all it could to save the financially troubled Pimlico Race Course from closing as it was headed into bankruptcy. “It's very, very important to us to do everything we can to defend racing in Maryland and to continue to protect Preakness."
The Marylanders at Pimlico were especially proud. I saw more than one woman work the Maryland flag into her fancy outfit. Maryland belts, Maryland bows, Maryland hats, Maryland necklaces. Walking out of the racetrack north of the Pimlico neighborhood, past all the sidewalk vendors and bathroom landlords, across Northern Blvd. and across the line into the Mount Washington neighborhood, the Maryland pride was on display. The tree-lined bucolic streets of Mount Washington couldn’t be any farther from Pimlico in terms of class. The large, columned porches played host to Preakness parties with cigars and expensive wine. They flew Maryland flags, they decorated their manicured lawns with statues of crab. Whether they were kids on Winner Ave. in Ravens jerseys, the self-appointed “ambassadors of Baltimore” spreading cheer to the infield line, or the well-off residents of Mount Washington toasting Oxbow’s victory in Terrapin pullovers over a flower bed of Black-Eyed Susans, these were all Marylanders, filled with pride on one of their state’s most important occasions – the Preakness Stakes.
After the race, I talked to Christina and asked her how they felt about another year of disappointment. Was she sure this was even possible? Is the Triple Crown just a myth?
“Between Citation and Secretariat there were a lot of horsemen who said racing had changed and the Triple Crown couldn't be won again. I know it can be done because I've seen horses come close so many times. When they brought the tarp out at Pimlico for Barbaro that was the only time I felt close to quitting.
“We’re approaching 25,000 miles on the road chasing after this thing? It’ll happen. Not this year, but it will happen. If it were hopeless, the words Triple Crown would lose meaning over time.”
As I drove back toward the Interstate to head back to New York City, I passed the Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation on Old Pimlico Rd., an orthodox Jewish congregation and one of the oldest in Baltimore. There were families on every sidewalk, walking in hurried paces toward the chapel for Shabbat service. It reminded me of a story I had heard, an old Jewish folk tale: A Russian Jew was paid a ruble a day to go stand at the edge of town and be the first to greet the Messiah when he arrived. The man’s wife was furious. “The pay is so low!” she exclaimed. “Yes,” he replied, “but the job is permanent.”