As minds shift toward the Preakness, many Baltimoreans look forward to balloons as much as horses. The annual Preakness balloon race -- celebrating its 20th launch tomorrow -- now qualifies as a major spring tradition.
And, over the weekend, 32 hot air balloons from across the country will lend seasonal charm to other events around the area.
"Balloon races have such a great ability to draw people from all walks of life and of all ages," says Dan Sherrill, owner of the American Balloon Corp. of Austin, Texas, and presenter of the ballooning weekend. "It's an excellent tool to provide community outreach."
The balloon race triggers a 10-day schedule of special events throughout the state -- including the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team Olympic Trials in Garrett County -- which will culminate in the 117th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Track on May 16.
Although the Preakness attracts 90,000 spectators, Preakness Week events now claim about 700,000, according to the Maryland Preakness Celebration, the non-profit corporation set up several years ago to organize and manage the festival.
"We try to make it a time that Marylanders can celebrate even if they're not interested in horse racing," says executive director Sandra Cuneo.
Following are some of this year's highlights in the metropolitan area:
* The First National Bank Hot Air Balloon Competition and Children's Festival begins with liftoff between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. tomorrow near the mansion in Druid Hill Park. This event is free. Following it is a children's festival with rides, miniature horses and entertainment. The festival runs to 10 a.m. Admission to the festival is $2 per person.
* Bud Light Nights, outdoor block parties along Water Street, provide music usually from 5:30 p.m. to midnight during Preakness Week. The series leads off with Rob Fahey and The Pieces tonight; the Rattle Cats, tomorrow; Great Train Robbery, Monday; Tiffany, Tuesday; Killing Floor, Wednesday; Tony Berry and New Money, Thursday14; Gazze, May 15. The events are free with a Preakness pin, which can be purchased at the site for $2 per person.
* Crown Petroleum Balloon Glow and Concert runs from 2 p.m., when gates open, to 10 p.m. tomorrow at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville.
Starting at 4 p.m., performances of country music will feature local singers, including Marge Calhoun and the New Heartaches. Collin Raye will play at 6 p.m. followed by Joe Diffie ("If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets") at 7:15 p.m.
About 8:15 p.m., hot air balloons will light up the night skies like giant jack o' lanterns tethered 20 feet above the ground. They are to remain illuminated for about an hour.
Admission to the event is $10 for general audiences, $6 for those with a Preakness pin and free for children younger than 10. Proceeds benefit the Kennedy Krieger Institute and United Cerebral Palsy. (The event raised $10,000 for cystic fibrosis last year.)
* The Mother's Day Balloon Competition, sponsored by The Sun, begins at 7 a.m. Sunday at Oregon Ridge Park. This "hare and hound" chase competition -- in which all balloons try to hit a certain target -- should last 45 minutes to an hour. The event is free.
* The 26th annual Preakness Celebration Frog Hop, a qualifying competition for the Calaveras County frog-jumping jubilee in California, runs from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Broadway Market Square of Fells Point. Last year's winner jumped 10 feet. In the past, the event has attracted as many as 65 frogs.
* AT&T Great Schooner Race is scheduled from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Inner Harbor. Such historic schooners as The Clipper City, Pride of Baltimore II and Lady Maryland will race to Fort McHenry from the Inner Harbor Finger Piers and back to the Harbor Amphitheatre.
* This year's Preakness Week parade will feature 62 units marching through downtown Baltimore from 6:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. May 15. Wes Unseld, head coach of the Washington Bullets, will be the grand marshal. The parade will start at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Eutaw Street, proceed northeast on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, east on Chase Street, south on Charles Street and east on Pratt Street and disband at Market Place. The reviewing stand will be at Pratt and Light streets.
Other events through the weekend include:
Lunchtime With the Orioles. Harborplace Amphitheatre. Noon today. Baltimore Orioles players sign autographs, meet fans with WBAL's Joe Angel. (410) 332-4191. Free.
$700,000 Pimlico Special. Rich stakes races featuring former Triple Crown competitors tomorrow at Pimlico Race Course. Post time 12:30 p.m. (410) 542-9400. Admission.
Fifth annual Fells Point Preakness Celebration. Fells Point Market Square, Baltimore. Noon tomorrow. Live music, arts, crafts, fun, food. Also, Sunday. (410) 675-0898. Free.
Belvedere Square Antique Show. York Road, Belvedere Avenue. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Approximately 20 dealers sell furniture, collectibles. (410) 239-6427. Free.
Mother's Day Balloon Competition. Oregon Ridge Park, Cockeysville. 7 a.m. Sunday liftoff. (410) 837-3030. Free.
Picnic Sunday Cookouts. Boordy Vineyards, Hydes. 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Complimentary tastings, tour of the winery -- free with Preakness pin. Reservations required. Also, May 17. (410) 592-5015. Admission.