Here's mud in their eyes ... and toes

Party: The infield is rated a sloppy track, but revelers make up ground on the elements.

May 19, 2002|By Tanika White and Tricia Bishop | Tanika White and Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Horse racing has always had its seamier side - desperate bets, old-time bookies - but the Preakness infield has lowered the bar.

While the well-heeled mingled with martinis in box seats yesterday or in the new Turfside Terrace (where the seats went for $250 a person), thousands of raucous revelers set up mini-pubs in the center of the Pimlico Race Course track and preferred to get down and dirty.

This year's Mardi Gras-like fete was one of the dirtiest. Blame it on the rain: Early morning storms turned the typically grassy field into sludge soup.

Thousands of naked toes were covered in mud. Hundreds of happy heads were covered in hoods. The damp and dreary weather brought a parade of unlikely pairings: turtleneck sweaters and shorts, open-toed sandals and blankets, rain parkas and leis.

And even though the rain was over by 10 a.m. and the sun made brief appearances, the temperature never got much above 60 degrees. But the party must go on.

Somewhere, mid-infield, a group of friends celebrated a triple bachelor party for three old college buddies tying the knot this summer.

The group of University of Delaware graduates had prepared for beach weather - Mexican hats, a Slip' N Slide, even a kiddie pool full of beer cans - but were undeterred by the cold and rain.

"We still have our Hawaiian shirts," said Eric Hall, 29.

"We still have beers," said Joe Quig, 29, one of the three bachelors.

"And none of us are wearing underwear," said Matt Petrin, 31.

This was the Delaware group's seventh Preakness, and the men said "preparedness" was the key to a good time, even if the weather didn't fully cooperate.

That's why Petrin remembered to bring an essential part of his Charlie's Angels Halloween costume - a slide-on pair of artificial breasts, only slightly covered by a green bikini top, tightly rolled from repeated removal.

"If no one else will show their [breasts], we have our own," Petrin said.

It's a longstanding tradition: Some women in the infield, fueled by booze and catcalls, flash a little flesh.

That's exactly why John Gannon and his friend Joe Chiappa came from Pearl River, N.Y.: "We heard it was just like College Girls Gone Wild down here," said Gannon, 27.

And they weren't disappointed. Even with the cool temperatures and soggy everything else, some exhibitionists still emerged.

"They're freezing," nurse Roseann Whittaker, who was manning one of the infield's four first-aid stations, said of the kids sloshing through the muck. "They're coming in here for gloves to keep warm."

Whittaker's station was stocked with supplies for every possible ailment: eyewashes for removing wind-blown cigarette ashes, bandages for cuts and scrapes, bags for vomiting and even advanced cardiac support machines for restarting hearts. But her rubber surgical gloves were the hot commodity.

Mike Morley, from Binghamton, N.Y., put his on his sandal-clad feet.

"I thought it was going to warm up," he said. "But I guess not."

While the main sport - horse racing - was going on around the infield, many groups found other ways to entertain themselves.

A crowd favorite this year: beer pong - tossing pingpong or golf balls into cups filled with beer and drinking the equivalent of their score.

Dozens of Cornell University students, with no table, no cups and no golf balls, created a derivative of the game. Using yesterday's wind as an opponent, they pitched empty beer cans into trash barrels - three cans in earned the player a beer, although no one paid much attention to that rule. One in, or none in, still earned the player a beer.

"It takes talent," said Sam Paolini, 22, of Ithaca, N.Y. "We've got to make our own fun."

Even though most couldn't see the track, surprisingly, some in the infield actually came for the horse races.

John Calloway of Silver Spring and Pat Leighton of Bethesda said their first three visits to the Preakness consisted solely of drinking and hooting. But this year, they spent a fair amount of time at the betting booths, as well.

"At first, it's just an excuse to come out here and get drunk," said Calloway, 20. "But now I'm a little older ... "

"You kind of respect the sport a little bit more," Leighton, 21, agreed.

Vickie Wilson from Frederick, who got to the infield at 9 a.m., has been coming to the Preakness for more than 20 years through rain and shine. She, too, comes mostly for the racing (her money was on Proud Citizen to win), but said the mayhem is a close second.

"I love to watch the people. They're doing all sorts of things: taking their clothes off, getting drunk," said Wilson, who's in her 50s. "But the thing I love most is that all these drunk people basically get along. It's like they've agreed they're all here to have a good time."

Most infielders said they noticed this year's heightened security.

"I thought it was safer this year," said Jeff Arends, 25, of New Jersey.

Said Alan Arrigoni, 25: "It's definitely tighter than last year."

But not everybody felt safe.

"This is my first year, and I'm not coming back again," said Stephanie Potts, 23. "I don't think it's very safe."

Potts said she was embarrassed by how "degraded" women were in the infield, and angered by "the cops standing around laughing."

Maj. Kathleen Patek of the Baltimore City Police said there were 192 ejections, mostly for drunk and disorderly conduct. There were six arrests.

Medical staff members said this year's injuries and illnesses numbered about the same as in years past.

"The rain might have helped a little," said nurse Carole Mays. "But then there were injuries because of the rain and mud. But it didn't dampen people's spirits, so to speak."

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