July 13, 2024
It’s Not About the Race

Before my first Preakness, I was warned not to expect Lily sundresses, big hats or Mint Juleps.

By Gwendolyn Heasley

My friend, a Baltimore native and a Preakness veteran, advised me to arrive at the race ?slightly intoxicated from the night before.? The explanation for this shady counsel was that this would make drinking beer for breakfast slightly more appealing.

At 5:45 a.m., I stumble out of bed. As advised, I am still remotely buzzed, having left a bar only four hours before. By 7 a.m., our group has joined an already-impressive line of Gen-Nexters (and a few lost Baby Boomers), waiting for the Pimlico racetrack gates to open at 8 a.m.

We’re a couple of years older than most of the people we see — and at least a couple of years out of synch.

The actual race, the second part of the Triple Crown series, won?t start until 5. And it only lasts a few minutes, since the course is just over a mile.? While Baltimore?s Preakness follows the Kentucky Derby in chronology, it gallops very much to its own beat.

About A Cooler Per Couple

I?m told that Preakness is known as racing?s blue-collar edition.? It also delineates from the Kentucky Derby and Belmont because it?s the only race that allows spectators to BYOB.

The early birds relish in this — it looks like there?s about one cooler for every two people. Sipping OJ? heavily laced with champagne, I observe my compatriots here in the Infield, the equivalent of the cheapest seats.

I was forewarned not to expect the Lily sundresses, generously-sized hats, and Mint Juleps synonymous with media-endorsed images of horse races, but I am still amused that most of the spectators seemed dressed for a kickball tournament. Most groups of friends are distinguishable because they wear matching T-shirts with not-so-clever silkscreen slogans, such as ?Team Drink,? and ?Ride a Cowboy–Not a Horse.?? These T-shirts seem to reinforce the already-obvious fact, demonstrated by beers in hand, slurred speech, and tottering stance, that THIS is a drinking event.? One group even holds coordinated beer cozies, hand-crafted with felt horses.

Several girls have donned rain boots, which alarms me, since there?s not a cloud in the sky.? I’m not wearing a sundress — but wonder fleetingly if my casual outfit will protect me from the elements.

Staking Out Our Turf

When the gates open, our designated runner, a college track star, takes off with a speed and agility the jockeys can only hope their horses will mimic, to secure a place for our group. A runner, I am told, is part of the experience. The runner, packing caution tape and stakes, ropes off a section for his or her group of friends. Ours has been extremely successful; our plot of land could support a mansion. It?s a good thing, though, because we need space to inflate our kiddy pool, the incubator for our beer.

We philosophically debate our claim on this land.? As a Preakness virgin, I equate our act to land appropriations of the Wild West. But my compatriots tell me we deserve it, because we arrived first. For awhile, boundaries hold, and our group mingles along our frontier, while other (less timely or agile) groups huddle in the remaining triangles created by subdivision. As the absurdity of claiming land materializes, and the friendliness of inebriation develops, all groups forgo defending their land. By day?s end, 90,000 people will be packed into this space.

As a virgin to horse racing, I am hoping to place bets, observe the classy (in comparison to our digs) grandstands, and to see an actual horse, if not a horse race. I plan to imbibe, for culture?s sake, a Black-Eyed Susan, said to be the Preakness equivalent of the Mint Julep: bourbon, vodka, orange juice and sweet-and-sour mix.

I try to channel the last threads of my college party girl psyche.? A friend had confided that many friends? rites of passage occurred here at Preakness. At first, I doubted these tales. But by 11 am, I see security guards traveling in packs, for safety.? Before noon, I see a girl being treated for alcohol poisoning; then I see my first pair of breasts.? I wonder if I dare try to use the port-o-potty.

By 1 o?clock, I give in to the chaos of the experience. One of my friends and I try? to numb the we-are?way-too-old-for-this feeling with a pitcher of overpriced Margaritas. No one offers us Black-Eyed Susans.

I feel like an old football quarterback trying to impress a bunch of high schoolers with his spiral. As the sugar and tequila settle nicely into my bloodstream, I begin to time-travel back to a younger, cooler self.

Then the beer cans start flying.

It?s the beer-can bombardment: one of the traditions of the Infield.? I don?t like it; it reminds me too much of actual bombings. Beer cans bounce off my friends? shoulders, arms, and? heads. People use Tupperware tops to shield themselves. Luckily, no around me gets hit by a full can ? which, according to Preakness myth, really does happen.

My father,? excited by the prospect of his daughter attending a horse race, texts me and asks me to place some bets. Apparently, NBC coverage doesn?t disclose the level of mission this will entail. Navigating through the cesspool of people, I manage to arrive at the betting tents, tucked away in a corner like a second thought to the frathouse/Infield revelry.

Enroute, I debate the many glowing offers of the Preakness carnival: free beer, chicken fingers and ?a date for the day.?? Undeterred by these gems, I place my dad?s bets.? While I never thought gambling would making me feel ethically sound, my two-dollar ?1-and-8 to win? and ?place of show? bets make me feel slightly more legitimate. I can only equate it to bringing a gift to a wedding that you crash.

Back with my group, we debate the merits of a Preakness edition of “Girls Gone Wild.” I object; these scenes would probably be too risqu?, even for home-video.

All around us, girls ride boys? shoulders and flash the adoring crowd. Franzia, the bag wine of choice, is funneled into eager mouths. The port-o-potties even become venues of entertainment, as people Spiderman-scale them and run across the tops.

We’re witnessing the spectacle of an unbridled species, and not the equine kind.

My eyes wander to eight adults (actual adults — not children masquerading as adults, or adults masquerading as children). They sit petrified on folding chairs, sipping soda and trying to read the race program, while keeping their eyes focused anywhere but on their surroundings. I romantically cast them as a church group bent on saving ten dollars on the? admission price. I didn?t need to imagine their horror; they wore it clearly in their eyes.


We flee two hours before the race starts. In our taxis, we critique this younger generation. Were we ever like that?

We continue our Preakness experience with ESPN, and are treated to a clear view of? Curlin trotting to victory, aided by the detail provided by flat-screen HDTV TV. The only shots of the Infield are aerial; from high up, the debauchery just melts into a tiny speck.? I am sure the attendees, their parents and the FCC are happy enough to see the activities of the Infield marginalized.

Bar-hopping that night, we?re the only dust-bedraggled, sunburnt group on the circuit. A guy approaches me and says, ?You were at Preakness? And you?re still out? You must be really hard-core.? I didn?t have the guts to explain.

The Preakness Stakes takes place the third Saturday of each May, in 2009 on May 16. The Baltimore Sun reports that the BYOB tradition has ended http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/bal-sp.pimlico17apr17,0,5176171.story : instead, alcohol will be sold. For info about attending, see: http://www.preakness.com/

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