Preakness madness began officially last night with a high-stepping parade that brought tens of thousands of spectators to the streets of downtown Baltimore.
People on window ledges and rooftops, curbs, park benches and statue pedestals waved at the floats and marching bands, and alternately cheered or jeered at politicians eager to strut their presence in a municipal election year.
There was more than a horse race as the theme of the 19th Annual Maryland Preakness Celebration Parade, which also saluted the troops from Operation Desert Storm.
Serving as grand marshals were 14 members of the Towson-based Maryland Army National Guard 290th Military Police Company, who rode in Humvees -- the replacement vehicle for the Jeep of old -- and were roundly applauded on a two-mile-long route lined with yellow ribbons and people standing 10 and 20 deep.
There were also about 45 crew members from the USNS Comfort and at least four other desert-duty soldiers and their families.
"He came back in time for my birthday and Mother's Day," said a proud Pam Stedtler, marching at the head of the parade alongside her son, Pfc. Philip L. Cole, 19, of Owings Mills, who was stationed for six months in the gulf with the Army's 82nd Engineering Company.
Holding Private Cole's other arm was Shelly Sheets, his girlfriend and -- she said without hesitation -- his future wife.
The Comfort crew members marched behind the Washington-based Navy Presidential Honor Guard and Presidential Drill Team -- whose members did not realize until the parade units were lined up that they would accompany gulf war veterans.
"It's kind of nice to be marching with them," said one honor guard member, Seaman Mike Mills, 24, of Thermopolis, Wyo., who agreed that he was basking in reflected glory of the hospital ship crew.
There were veterans of other wars as well -- World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- all combat-wounded members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, riding aboard a motorized trolley car.
"This is the parade that we never got," said Carol Zacharko, 62, who said he was wounded by a mortar shell in Korea on June 8, 1952. "I'll never forget it," said the retired warehouse worker, the commander of Purple Heart Chapter 577.
The military theme carried through to Pratt Street, where a Brandon Fields, nearly 2, danced to the beat of march played by the U.S. Marine Corps Band.
The parade might well have been Brandon's birthday party since he was born on the Sunday after the Preakness in 1989, according to his father, Marty Fields, 33.
Although the parade was meant for a horse race, there were also plenty of dogs along the route. Owners sat watching the parade alongside retired racing greyhounds, a fuzzy white Samoyed, a dachshund.
But one pooch got the most attention -- a German shepherd guide dog named Blair, marching ahead of Samuel Christian, 65, in a troop from the National Federation of the Blind and Disabled.
Walking with the group at their invitation, and carrying a white-tipped cane, was Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.