You won't have to wait until post time to get into the Preakness spirit. Starting tomorrow, giddyap for nine days of hot-air balloon and schooner races, marching bands and floats, music, spectacular fireworks and more.
It's Preakness Celebration, a festival stuffed with more than 30 events designed to lead you to the starting gate of the 125th running of the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown challenge.
In its 12-year history, Preakness Celebration has grown from a modest effort to celebrate a horse race to a monumental event that attracts media attention and generates tourism. Nightly block parties, for example, draw more than 15,000 people, top regional and national talent and national corporate sponsors.
"Once the Kentucky Derby is over, the attention shifts to Baltimore, and we want to capitalize on being the focus of the nation," says Terry Romanoli, the festival's executive director. "While we are in the national spotlight, what better time to showcase ourselves for the tourists in town for the races and the residents who can have a sense of community pride."
The celebration is anchored by concerts, hot-air balloon races, block parties and the Preakness Parade.
"They are the tried and true, but every year we try to feature them with a different twist," says Romanoli, adding that this year each of the signature events has been spiced up a bit:
Route change for parade
When marching bands, decorative floats, costumed characters and color guards step off at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Camden Yards -- the new assembling site for the Preakness Parade -- they won't have as far to go as in previous years to perform for the judges in the reviewing stand. They'll proceed straight down Pratt Street, forgoing a trip on Charles Street.
"One of the reasons we've compressed the route is to avoid calamity with giant helium-filled balloons," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion, the parade organizer. "The balloons grow taller each year and become more difficult to maneuver under wires and traffic lights. Often they pop and deflate before all spectators get to see them."
Cutting the parade route in half also tightens the flow, keeping the units closer together and narrowing any gaps, explains Gilmore.
So grab a prime spot along Pratt Street and watch the parade pass by en route to Market Place. Units include the League of Maryland Horsemen, the Frederick Douglass High School Band, the Oriole Bird, the Baltimore Marching Ravens, antique and state-of-the-art fire engines and the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.
Leading the procession will be grand marshal Randolph Mantooth from the 1970s television show "Emergency." Mantooth, who is on a trip across country to promote fire and rescue service, will be riding the emergency vehicle from the series.
Oldies concert at Oregon Ridge
After the parade, pack a picnic and head for Oregon Ridge Park in Hunt Valley for hours of family fun and live music. In a change from previous years, concerts start at 1 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. and continue through the evening to provide more music. And this year, you'll be listening to golden oldies instead of country music.
WPOC, the country-music radio station that had sponsored the concert for nine years, was "promotionally otherwise committed and couldn't sponsor this year's concert, so [oldies station] WQSR jumped right in and took over," Romanoli says. "It's going to be a fresh change for the traditional event."
Headlining the day's music are Herman's Hermits -- featuring Peter Noone -- the Association, the Drifters, the Coasters and WQSR's Stevie and the Satellites.
Noone says he doesn't know much about horse racing but adds that he has no trouble leading the audience in a pep rally for the Preakness.
Part of the British Invasion of the 1960s, Noone is still "Into Something Good." This year alone, he will perform 150 concerts across the country. And when he looks out into the audience, he sees not only fans from his early days in America, but also their children and their children's children.
"In my fan club, about 40 percent of the members are under 20 -- quite bizarre, but it shows the incredible fascination the '60s hold for young people," Noone says in a recent telephone interview.
He attributes his continued drawing power to chart-topping hits from his old catalog, such as "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" and "I'm Henry VIII, I Am."
"They're child-proof songs with unthreatening lyrics -- music parents can play in the van while carpooling their kids to school. . . . I don't swear and make no references to drugs," says the 52-year-old musician.
When Noone and his band sing "There's a Kind of Hush" and other numbers from their signature-song list Saturday night (his concert starts at 7), the sky at Oregon Ridge will be illuminated by the fires of hot-air balloons participating in the BalloonGlow.
Up, up and away!