At Pimlico, horses are the star attraction. But behind the scenes on Preakness Day, people provide the show. Here's a 12-hour look.

Sunrise, sunset

Preakness Stakes

May 21, 2006|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG | KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG,SUN REPORTER

On almost any other racing day, Pimlico Race Course is a comfortable, quiet spot to watch the horses. No hassle, no lines, small crowds and good people.

But on Preakness Saturday each year, more than 100,000 people make the trek up Northern Parkway, and cultures clash in a tornado of celebration and sin.

It begins well before sunrise, and doesn't truly end until the last debutante has climbed into her Mercedes, and the last piece of trash has been scooped from the infield grass the next day. It may be one of the last places in America where drunks and degenerate gamblers can comfortably rub shoulders with politicians and philanthropists, and where the hard work of countless dedicated people provides a backdrop for college kids to pass out in public.

The Preakness is many things to many people and a truly unique event to the city of Baltimore. We offer you a chance to take a peek, now, at 12 hours in the life of Pimlico on Preakness Day, as well as some of the colorful personalities that make the event as special as it is surreal.

7:49 a.m.: Outside the gates, thousands of people (mostly with infield passes) are already lined up, waiting for Pimlico to open. Most are sober, but some started drinking before sunrise, and are already drunk, or well on their way. Cheap beer - mostly Bud Lite, Miller Lite and Busch Light - is the beverage of choice, and it's carried in by the case, in backpacks, on shoulders and in children's inflatable swimming pools. Guys shout, girls laugh and couples flirt while a small army of police officers and hired security keeps close watch. An infield ticket this year costs $50.

8:17 a.m.: As the line of people files into the racetrack (at a pace so slow, it's practically glacial), teenage boys from the nearby neighborhoods mill through the crowd, pushing rusty shopping carts.

For $5, anyone can rent a cart, then have their cases of beer transported to the front gate. It's a long walk from most people's parking space - one that feels even longer when you're struggling to carry a 24-pack of Natty Boh - but it's only 59 degrees, so most of the line seems uninterested. Just off Northern Parkway, a woman stands on her front lawn, holding up a cardboard sign that reads: "Parking, All Day, $60."

8:41 a.m.: A tall, thick, African-American man on Pimlico Avenue won't give a reporter his name, but he says he knows exactly what's wrong with horse racing today, and says the media is afraid to write about it.

"There are no black jockeys or black trainers anymore," he says, pointing a crooked finger into the air. "It's a disgrace."

9:01 a.m.: Inside the grandstand, the betting windows, for the most part, are empty. Behind steel bars, gray-haired women lick their fingers and count stacks of $20 bills. Greg Little - a Baltimore man who says he is here for his 20th consecutive Preakness - is one of the few people at one of the windows. He cashes in his tickets from Friday and prepares to make all his bets for the day, 13 races. Look out for Sweetnorthernsaint in the Preakness, he says.

"I do all my handicapping the night before," he says. "I like to get in early and avoid the lines. I'll probably bet between $500 and $600 for the day."

Little, a Ravens fan who sips his beer from a purple Ravens beer coozy, says he and his brother are in their third year of attending all three legs of the Triple Crown. Baltimore, he reluctantly admits, is not his favorite.

"You go to Churchill Downs, and everyone is so nice and the people are so well-dressed," Little says. "You come here, and it's a bit of a letdown."

10:05 a.m.: Midshipman 1st Class Colin Chandler, a senior at Annapolis and member of the Naval Academy Glee Club, sings the national anthem in a deep baritone. Chandler, who grew up in the San Francisco area, says he joined the Navy because he wanted to become a pilot, and now he's extremely close to his goal. In a few weeks, he'll head off to flight school in Florida, eager to serve his country.

"I'll be happy doing whatever it is they tell me," Chandler says. "Helicopters, jets, anything."

Music has always been a part of Chandler's life. He plays the trombone, the piano, and was a member of a jazz band. This is the first time, however, he has sung the national anthem solo in front of a big crowd.

"I think it's impossible not to get a little nervous," he says. "I did it before the Emerald Bowl, but that was with someone else."

10:37 a.m.: A.R. "Rosie" Napravnik, an 18-year-old redhead with sleepy eyes and a pale complexion, grabs the first race of the day, riding Roth Ticket to an easy victory. Napravnik, who grew up in New Jersey and lives in Laurel, is one of only two female jockeys on the card, but she's one of the best, regardless of gender. This is her first victory of the day, but not her last. She'll also win the prestigious fifth race, the Baltimore Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, riding My Lord to a commanding win.

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