There is no place cooler

Infield: A day of Pimlico partying brings out a strange brew indeed of ice-filled beverage-carrying containers

124th Preakness

May 16, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

By 11 a.m. yesterday, Dan Gilbert of Washington had already suffered the Titanic of cooler catastrophes. The bow of his $2 Styrofoam ice chest ripped open, hurling ice and beer upon the concrete outside Pimlico's entrance gate.

"That's disappointing," Gilbert moaned.

But as quickly as the faux pas occurred, a trailing pit crew helped Gilbert scoop up the frosted cans of beer into an emergency spare twin. And the Preakness' annual march of the coolers continued without hesitation.

For the estimated 68,000 people partying in the Preakness infield, the cooler was the method of survival.

The infield ice chest parade began shortly after the gates opened at 8: 30 a.m., with hauling styles as diverse as their owners.

The most popular carrying method can best be described as the pallbearer, two friends gripping an end marching side by side while treating their cargo with reverence befitting the deceased.

Another popular method -- and without a doubt the most strenuous -- is the bear hug. Owners wrap their arms around the weighted box as if clinging to a life preserver. The technique is eschewed by infield veterans like Steve Whiting of Altoona, Pa.

Whiting strolled with ease to the Pimlico gates towing the handle of his plastic Coleman on wheels. "You don't have to bend over," Whiting said. "And it's about half the weight."

Twenty-three-year Preakness veteran Kevin Corkery opted for the British method: the double-decker. He and his friends gripped the ends of a bottom cooler, then threw a smaller ice chest on top, giving it the look of a double-decker Piccadilly bus.

"We decided to go with teamwork," Corkery of Moorestown, N.J., said. "It's easier."

Amy Bohen of Buffalo, N.Y., supervised the hauling of her cooler, a converted non-regulation Tupperware model that she uses all winter to store her sweaters.

"Now it's filled with beer and sandwiches," she said, watching her friends twist their wrists frantically trying to grip the ends.

In addition to hauling the gasoline of the Preakness infield -- chilled cans of beer -- the added joy of the cooler is that once the promised land of the track center is reached, the ice chest quickly converts into a chair, card table, boom box holder or a pedestal for bold women to stand and lift their tops.

Basking in the sun at the southwest end of the infield, Brian Burke rested his feet atop a pint-sized cooler, waxing about the importance that the cooler classic, the Playmate, has had on civilization.

"If it wasn't for the cooler, we wouldn't be here," said Burke, 21 of Hancock. "It's the sole item of survival for the Preakness infield."

As inspector at the Pimlico gates, Sheila Robinson reviews every make and model of cooler. Her favorite is the vintage giant, green metal Coleman, the Chevrolet of ice chests with some dating to the 1950s.

"I didn't even know they made coolers back then," Robinson said.

But the embodiment of cooler ingenuity at yesterday's Preakness infield was achieved by Tim Ortman, Greg Hunter and Mark Sullivan, students at the University of Pennsylvania.

The three men chose to go industrial this year: two waist-high Rubbermaid trash cans on wheels.

"Last year, we carried coolers on the two-hour bus trip and two feet from the gate, they split open," Sullivan said. "This year, we went with heavy duty."

Bill Gates (no relation) stood over what he called the trifecta of infield beer storage, three plastic coolers side by side filled with a buffet of three brands of beer.

"We've got a long day," Gates said. "And I've got too many years in to bring a Styrofoam cooler. People should know better."

By noon, Sarah Wise was doing the Port-O-Let dance, shifting leg to leg while waiting in the long lines outside the gray tombs that serve as restrooms. To transport her beverages, Wise opted for the beach bag.

"My father bought it for me," the 23-year-old Baltimore resident said. "It fits a lot of beer, and it's not heavy."

Outside the racetrack gates, youths along Rogers Avenue pushed shopping carts, offering to haul the multiple coolers of Preakness fans to the gates. In return, they received $5 and $10 tips.

Dave Ambrose, 39, of Fairfax, Va., opted for the six-pack Playmate as he strolled in to meet some college friends.

Ambrose moved past Gilbert and friends, quickly glancing at the wreckage of the shredded Styrofoam ice chest, one of four that the Washington group purchased for its infield party.

"What's good is coming with enough people that we can just throw it all in theirs," Gilbert said.

Pub Date: 5/16/99

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