Given the acreage they require, their seasonal existence and the unique cultural ecosystem of people who live and work on the backstretch, horse racetracks tend to function as cities unto themselves.
During Triple Crown telecasts, cameras capture regally dressed spectators, meticulous grounds keeping and, of course, the innate beauty of the Thoroughbreds set to duel on the dirt. What might be happening outside the walls of these enormous facilities is largely left to the imagination, other than a cursory glimpse at clichéd regional pastimes or well-known edifices.
For years, there have been whispers that one of the Triple Crown races should be moved to a West Coast track to better represent the sport’s geographic diversity. Here, the Preakness Stakes has been the easiest target; Pimlico is not Churchill Downs, and Baltimore isn’t New York. But Maryland boasts a horse-happy history to rival any other state’s, and the American spirit is at its best when it refuses to recoil from distressed populaces. Baltimore needs the Preakness; if you’ve ever thought about catching the middle jewel in person, this should be the year.
Founded in 1870, Pimlico is the second-oldest racetrack in the United States, behind Saratoga. More impressively, Maryland’s Jockey Club predates the nation’s independence itself: Founded in 1743, it’s America’s oldest sporting association, and once counted the likes of George Washington and Andrew Jackson among its members.
Painted black and yellow with golden chairs, Pimlico’s old, open-air grandstand forms an odd aesthetic union with the glass-encased central grandstand and clubhouse, which are red, white, and separated from one another by an enclosed paddock. While this abundance of space might seem outrageously excessive on a Thursday afternoon during the track’s three-week spring meet, it’s packed to the gills on Preakness day, when 120,000 patrons are split between the infield and more traditional seating areas.
The Preakness, named for a stakes-winning horse who raced at Pimlico in the 1870s, has an advantage over the Belmont Stakes in that the prospect of an elusive Triple Crown is inherently alive when the horses reach the starting gate. Still, the track piles on the trimmings to attract even the most passive racing fan, hosting a multi-stage, race-day concert called InfieldFest that has featured the likes of Lorde, Pitbull, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Zac Brown, and ZZ Top in years past, and this year will be headlined by Post Malone and Odesza.
Pimlico’s signature drink is the black-eyed Susan, a tasty mix of vodka, St. Germain, and a variety of juices. Black-Eyed Susan day is to the Preakness as Kentucky Oaks day is to the Derby, with the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes serving as Friday’s featured race for 3-year-old fillies. (The black-eyed Susan is Maryland’s state flower.) The Dixie and Pimlico Special Stakes are two of the other marquee races which round out the weekend’s card.
For low-rollers, the convivial Inside Rail bar on the second floor churns out lunch-hour bloody Marys for a crew of everyday bettors, who swap superfecta dreams and retirement plans (often interrelated) in an inimitable Baltimorean accent born of the city’s location at the crossroads of the Northeast and South. On the clubhouse’s ground floor, the "Blondie"-inspired Dagwood Sandwich—a quadruple-decker pile of roast beef, ham, salami, turkey, and cheese—can be had for $10, while the top-floor Sports Palace dazzles nattier patrons with crystal chandeliers, buckets of beer and wall-sized projections of races near and far.
Where to Eat, Drink, and Sleep
While Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is often hailed as the centerpiece of downtown Baltimore’s renaissance, few American neighborhoods are more stunning to walk through than historic Mt. Vernon. There’s a 19th-century cathedral on virtually every other block, with stately row houses nestled in between. Hotel Brexton offers comfortable boutique lodging on the district’s edge, and is a short walk from the ornate Marie Louise Bistro, where a breakfast of pastries, gourmet coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice in a bright, airy setting will make you feel as though you’re starting your day in a European café.
A more workaday meal can be found across the interstate at New Wyman Park, a classic hash house with Maxwell House coffee and fast-talking cooks who fry up eggs and bacon on a grill that you can practically reach out and touch from the counter. The staff and clientele are as diverse as Baltimore itself; the same can be said of a surprisingly tidy Motel 6 down the street in the resurgent Station North neighborhood, where artists attracted by affordable live-work spaces have created funky metal sculptures and murals of jungle cats being ridden by shirtless men, their heads rendered as faceless white dots.
Across the street from Motel 6 is Joe Squared, a pizzeria-meets-dive bar that’s been featured on the Food Network. Hip waiters can often be found singing along to indie-rock on the stereo, while customers wash down square slices of delicious thin-crust pies — some have seafood! — with an impressive array of draft beer.
Speaking of which, National Bohemian is Baltimore’s foremost blue-collar cup of suds, and it won’t set you back much at Ottobar in Charles Village (down the street from New Wyman Park). With cheap whiskey specials, karaoke nights, and hard-rocking local bands that can be heard for no cover charge, one regular claims that “it should be considered an accomplishment if you don’t break your neck going down the stairs at the end of the night.” If you do make it unscathed, feel free to visit Ottobar’s 450-capacity downstairs venue, which hosts national touring acts like the Melvins and Heartless Bastards.
Yet the establishment with the deepest connection to Pimlico is the Mt. Washington Tavern. Located a short drive from the track, it has one television set regularly tuned to a horse-racing telecast, and a vintage painting of the original “Old Hilltop” clubhouse hangs high above the bar. Having been handsomely rebuilt after a fire a few years ago, it’s the sort of place where the bartender has a martini waiting for a regular just as her train pulls into the nearby light-rail station and offers free oysters — shucked by an employee near the door — to customers who come in for happy hour. As for entrees, the peppercorn-encrusted Tavern steak is excellent, but the side of buttery brussel sprouts succotash is even better.
While Baltimore is home to the Preakness, its existence for the balance of its meet more closely resembles that of other workaday mid-Atlantic tracks. Hence, it tends to attract jockeys and trainers on the rise (or comfortable to thrive at the local level) versus those who’ve already risen. Fitting the aspirational mold, Trevor McCarthy and Kevin Gomez are both in their 20s and are two of the track’s top jockeys. As for trainers who frequently saddle horses at Old Hilltop, Graham Motion is certainly among the nation’s best, with Mike Trombetta a notch below and Kieron Magee the king of the locals.
This article was first published in 2015 and has been updated.