In 1978 Hal Wallace and a group of friends from Virginia Tech came to their first Preakness because they thought it sounded "like a fun thing to do." Fourteen years later, Mr. Wallace and some of those same friends are gathering for their now-annual Preakness celebration because they know it's a fun thing to do.
From California, they're coming. And from Minnesota, Virginia and Massachusetts. Old college buddies, friends of friends, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends. There will be about 30 starters this year.
Mr. Wallace, a Baltimore resident now, is the unofficial host and organizer of the revelry, which will begin tonight with a party at his Federal Hill home. For some in the Wallace group, the weekend will stretch through Monday night's Orioles game and include champagne brunch, a cruise on the bay and plenty of crabs and beer once the race is run.
Although it's a horse race they're coming to see, "we use it more as an excuse to get together," says Mr. Wallace.
So do a lot of other people.
Some groups gather in the grandstand, others in the infield. And many people who never go to a horse race on any other day of the year take in one of Maryland's premier sporting events. It doesn't matter if they drink Mimosas or Miller Lite, eat Kentucky Fried from a box or crab cakes from a silver tray, the tradition is simply to be there.
The Preakness is a family event for Dr. Hans Wilhelmsen, whose son, daughter and son-in-law join him at a table overlooking the finish line from inside the clubhouse at Pimlico. "We have a grand time. It is the best table -- right at the windows at the finish line," says Dr. Wilhelmsen, who inherited the table about five years ago from a former patient, the late Frank Cuccia.
"I guess it got in my blood," he says of the race. This is the 20th year he has attended, since Mr. Cuccia, who was a state racing commissioner from 1977 to 1987, invited Dr. Wilhelmsen to the table that he now occupies on Preakness Day.
Dr. Wilhelmsen says he's delighted "to see the joy that the children get out of the Preakness," even though they are grown. The day starts with pre-race festivities at his farm in Phoenix, continues through lunch in the track clubhouse and the races, of course, and ends with a post-party for 15 or 20 people at his Baltimore County home.
Dr. Wilhelmsen, like many other Preakness-goers, takes to the track only once a year. He does, however, always pick the winner, he says. His method? He buys a ticket on each horse in the race.
Timonium resident Carl Adamek, going into his sixth Preakness, is a relative newcomer to race festivities. But the idea of spending the day in the infield and the rest of the weekend in other fields of fun has caught on with his friends and his friends' friends.
"We started inviting a few more people," he says. Now, his original group of six "has blossomed into almost 100," who come from as far away as Texas and California.
Mr. Adamek, who is saddled with the organizational responsibilities but doesn't seem to mind, starts planning in January, he says. He gets tickets, rents vans for the out-of-towners and plans pre- and post-Preakness meals and entertainment. He even puts together a Preakness Package -- $80 covers a ticket and transportation to the track, food and beverages at the race, Sunday brunch and a cruise.
Mr. Adamek's group got acquainted with Hal Wallace's crowd during Sunday brunch at the Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel a couple of Preaknesses ago. This year -- although they'll be brunching separately -- the two parties, about 130 people, will sail together on the Clipper City out of the Inner Harbor on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday brunch is a must for the Wallace group. That's when the friends select their "infielder of the year." This is an honor that goes "to the individual -- male or female -- who most distinguishes himself or herself on the infield," explains Mr. Wallace, declining to detail the behavior worthy of the honor.
The group keeps a plaque engraved with the names of all its star infielders, he explains, and the person who wins one year has the honor of presenting the plaque the next.
Mr. Wallace says he usually gets a couple of tickets for the grandstand so that he and his friends can see the race. But they spend the rest of Preakness Day in the infield.
"We always say when we don't want to go to the infield anymore, we don't want to go to Preakness anymore.
"We go to have fun. I always have a good time, but it's not for everybody," adds Mr. Wallace. Despite recent restrictions on infield partying and the presence of corporate tents there, the area is still known for its young rowdy crowd. "It's just a big mess -- to put it nicely," says Mr. Adamek.