Every year he figures he's seen it all. But when Preakness time rolls around, Baltimore Police Agent Wayne J. Sponsky -- who's worked 16 races -- can't help but be impressed by the creative energy of the infield crowd.
About 9: 30 a.m. yesterday, while keeping order among racegoers in a half-mile-long line snaking toward the infield, Sponsky spotted a group of young men enjoying a Preakness breakfast delicacy that he hadn't encountered before.
"They were eating their Rice Krispies in a bowl of beer," he observed. "I think they called it snap, crackle and burp."
It was just another Preakness moment for Sponsky and the hundreds of police officers, security workers and Maryland National Guard members whose job yesterday was to make sure that 70,000 infield partygoers played nice.
For the largely college-age crowd, it was a day of drinking, disrobing and general dissolute behavior. And for the most part, the police officers assigned to the infield tolerated the foolishness -- as long as nobody got hurt.
Gusty winds and periodic showers in the late morning and early afternoon couldn't dampen the celebratory mood.
"It's a New Year's Eve party in May," said city police Sgt. Herb J. Brown, who has helped to keep the peace at 23 Preaknesses.
"Enforcement is not the key issue here," he said. "As long as they're not causing problems we leave them alone."
Sponsky arrived at Pimlico Race Course at 5: 30 a.m., prepared for at least 12 hours of Preakness patrol.
He spent most of the morning monitoring the incoming infield revelers -- many of whom had already started imbibing -- and alerting celebrants that bottles, oversized coolers and other banned items would not be allowed past the gate.
He took questions from lost souls -- like the well-dressed and obviously misplaced woman asking, "Officer, what is the best way to the clubhouse?"
He patiently listened to the pleas of those who hoped to bypass the long line, begging, "Officer, my friend has a heart condition, can we cut ahead?"
And he issued gentle warnings when anyone got carried away by the festive atmosphere.
"I suggest you not jump the fence again," Sponsky told an athletic young woman.
The Preakness, after all, is not a steeplechase.
As the crowd streamed by, Sponsky stepped back to take in the scene. There was a man with a section of hose and a funnel -- mandatory infield beer drinking paraphernalia. Another sipped champagne from a plastic container in the shape of a voluptuous female. A bachelor party filed in wearing T-shirts with "Dead Man Walking" printed on the back.
Sponsky joked with some college boys who said they came to the Preakness for "beer, chicks and horses."
"They're just out here to have a good time and we're here to make sure they have a safe time," he said. "The last thing they want to hear is some arrogant police officer."
On the actual infield, chaos reigned supreme.
Crushed beer cans and gnawed chicken wings littered the ground. Cigar smoke wafted through the air, and young men held up handmade signs asking young women to take off their shirts.
Lt. Edward C. Glacken sat above it all, comfortably ensconced in a Winnebago at the center of the Police Department's infield command post.
He said that many infield altercations occur when an interloper encroaches on another partyer's roped off "territory."
"After people have enough of the sauce in them and somebody steps in their area, then fights break out," Glacken said.
"By the eighth race, three-quarters of these people won't even know there's a horse running out here," he said.
Just before 1 p.m. yesterday, Baltimore police officer Fred Gilbart and four other officers set out on a routine infield patrol.
As the group quickly weaved through the throng, friendly types invited the policemen to take a break.
"Hey officer, want a beer?" shouted a young woman.
As infield crowds go, the officers said, this group was well-behaved.
"Being that it's not very hot or sunny, it's a little quieter than usual," Gilbart said.
On warmer Preakness days, Glacken said, people tend to nod off after several drinks and wake up "cooked."
Glacken said the infield atmosphere is much more controlled since Pimlico banned potentially dangerous items from the area several years ago, including tent stakes and flagpoles.
"It's just a happy crowd," he said. "See them up there throwing footballs?"
Mel Freeman seemed happy enough. He wore a yellow baseball batting helmet, with cans of beer attached to each side and straws winding up to the beverages.
He said his headgear makes it possible to "suck two beers at the same time."
But Freeman, 36, distanced himself from the younger infield initiates, many of whom had difficulty standing by noon. He was pacing himself.
hTC "We're experienced Preakness people, so we know to take it slow or we won't make it to the 10th race," he said.
Pub Date: 5/18/97