Drinking In The Atmosphere 119th Preakness

May 22, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

William and Phyllis Gebhardt came to the Preakness with their 16-year-old grandson, but they spent the day in two universes.

Mr. and Mrs. Gebhardt were sitting in the $58 box seats outside the clubhouse. Their grandson headed for the tunnel that runs under the track. He would spend the day in the infield.

"He's supposed to check in," said Phyllis Gebhardt.

They looked across the track toward the mass of humanity behind the hurricane fence where more than 50,000 people were sitting, standing, milling. And drinking. And drinking some more.

Folks hauled the beer into the infield in coolers and garbage barrels. They drank from cans, they drank from funnels. One guy was seen drinking from his hat, which held a six-pack and funneled the beer to his mouth through a hose.

Some showed up around sunrise to stand at the gates and begin drinking beer.

"Wake up with a Budweiser," said security guard Claude Anthony, who reported for work at 6:30 and saw the frat-boy types getting an early start. Anthony was assigned to the infield, and he couldn't exactly figure it out.

"Why pay $15 to sit here, walk around and drink beer?" said Anthony, who works during the week as a correctional officer at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. Then he caught himself, realizing that looking for logic in the Preakness infield was a bad idea.

"I think now basic human logic gives way to beer," said Anthony, pointing out a group of young men standing around a trash barrel filled with beer cans.

"It'll get insane in here once the beer starts setting in," said Mike Campbell, a student at Frostburg State University. "It's the biggest party of the summer."

He's 22 and he was drinking beer. Asked to explain the attraction of the Preakness infield, he said, "It's people-watching, really."

But most of the people looked the same. Most were 22, white and drinking beer. There were a few elaborate tattoos, and one nipple ring was spotted in the crowd.

And at least one man over 22: Joe Fagan of Washington, who already had been to the Kentucky Derby and was planning to attend the Belmont Stakes. He's 60, but said, "I'm still a young guy at heart. I came over to bet a few, take the exactas. I just think it's great to be out where it's fun."

Janice Kaufman had seen it, done it and had enough. After a couple of years in the infield, she had moved to the club level.

"I'm too old for that stuff," said Kaufman, a 20-something who preferred not to give her age. The generation gap was one problem, the bathroom gap another.

"The bathroom situation is bad" out there, she said.

The club level seemed a cultural mid-step between the infield and Preakness Village, a neighborhood of white tents and white picket fences separated from the infield by a hurricane fence. Guards stood at the opening in the fence to ensure none of the rabble crashed the private parties sponsored by the governor, the Maryland Jockey Club and such corporations as BGE, Chrysler, Signet Bank. Women in big hats sat at tables covered with tablecloths and decorated with vases of roses, orchids, snapdragons.

As the corporate people schmoozed, a man in a turban sat in a trellised gazebo telling fortunes, picking winners.

Somewhere in the crowd among the infield, Preakness Village and the grandstands, a few celebrities had been seen.

"Somebody spotted Meat Loaf," said Pimlico spokesman Craig Sculos. Also former American League batting champion George Brett and Berry Gordy of Motown fame.

But the Gebhardts had not seen their grandson. They didn't seem worried.

They were looking forward to a day at the races, just as they have for the past 22 years at the Preakness. For much of that time, the Gebhardts have been part of a group that eats breakfast together on Preakness morning, boards buses for the track, then has dinner together in the evening. They are lawyers, doctors, real estate people and computer systems managers.

"It's a rather civilized party," said William Gebhardt, 68, a real estate investor who lives in Towson.

He's not a racing fan, but he loves the Preakness.

"It's just the social event," he said. Sort of like the infield. Sort of.

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