Preakness, Pimlico and police

Storied race full of history with cops, rowdy fans and booze

May 14, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Who can forget Preakness 2006, when Barbaro, a favorite to win the Triple Crown, collapsed in the first furlong with a fractured leg, prompting a police-escorted caravan up Interstate 95 to a veterinary hospital in Pennsylvania?

Or Preakness 2002, when Baltimore police officers removed their badges and nameplates and were caught on video hitting a spectator with a baton during a melee in the raucous infield, embarrassing the department when it was aired nationally on ESPN?

Or Preakness 1999, when drunken Lee Chang Ferrell scaled an infield fence, stood in front of eight charging horses during the seventh race — thankfully, not the live-on-national-television stakes race — and swung at the favorite, Artax?

Or Preakness 1998, when a power failure and an electrical fire plunged the track into darkness, shut down betting windows and cost the already cash-strapped track $2.5 million in wagers, a third of the typical take?

Preakness Day, one of the most celebrated and promoted mega-events of Maryland, is a coveted opportunity for Baltimore to shine on the national stage for something other than crime. Yet calamities have often overshadowed it.

"That's recent history, that's incidental stuff," joked Joe Kelly, Pimlico's historical consultant, who covered racing there for The Baltimore Sun in the 1940s and for the now-defunct Washington Star from 1955 to 1981. (He is also the father of Sun columnist Jacques Kelly.)

Ask Kelly about calamities, and he can cite the day the grandstand burned down in 1966 — though not on Preakness Day — or when the track went into bankruptcy in 1889, or when it was turned into a camp for soldiers fighting the Spanish-American War, or when it was forced to close in 1945 for World War II. Luckily, the war ended and the Preakness ran a month late in June, keeping its streak since 1909 unbroken.

"Over the years, there have been all sorts of things that happened to Pimlico," Kelly said. "That track has sort of survived everything."

It survived the Running of the Urinals a few years ago — in which inebriated young men and women ran across the top of portable toilets as others threw full beer can and bottles and other stuff at them. It was an Internet sensation.

Pimlico officials tried to tone down infield debauchery by limiting alcohol sales, but low turnout prompted them to return to the old days.You still can't bring your own booze, but you can buy an all-you-can-drink beer cup, which should bring the youngsters back and keep security busy.

After the 2002 beating, city police stopped actively patrolling the infield. It's now up to private security to break up fights, tell women to put their clothes back on and at least keep the area looking like a college keg party that doesn't quite reach "Animal House" standards.

Baltimore police are stationed outside the infield and will come in, when asked, to make arrests. Uniformed officers are also stationed at concession stands, but they're there to guard the money, not necessarily police the drunks.

The biggest police story out of Pimlico is most certainly Ferrell's punch. The Baltimore Sun's Mike Klingaman revisited the story last year, on the 10th anniversary, but Ferrell and his family, now living in Bel Air, declined to speak. An attorney for Ferrell, who was 22 at the time, said his client could not recall the episode.

At the time, Ferrell had told police he was trying to commit suicide when he slipped by security and got onto the track three races before the main event. He assumed a boxing stance and swung as horses thundered by him, missing Artax but hitting jockey Jorge Chavez, who had to veer out of the way, hitting another horse. Artax lost, and Pimlico had to refund the $1.4 million wagered on him.

Ferrell was sent for psychiatric testing, but his attorney told Klingaman he is now "committed to sobriety" and is employed in Harford County. Artax went on to win the Breeder's Cup Sprint and earned $1.6 million before retiring.

Cheap booze is back at the races. Let's see what Saturday brings.

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