'Lucky' charms

Preakness Stakes draws revelers and racing fans

May 15, 2010|By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun

The 135th Preakness Stakes was a blur of perfect weather and outrageous hats, bow ties and tube tops, society types and drunken revelers, parking-space hustlers and soul-savers, and for nearly two minutes — almost beside the point — a horse race.

More than 95,000 fans poured into Pimlico Racecourse for the event, won by Lookin At Lucky, whose victory means there will be no Triple Crown champion this year. Announced attendance was up by about 23 percent over last year. A new alcohol policy — rejiggered for the second year in a row —brought some fans back but also led to gripes about long beer lines.

"It's the biggest party of the year," said John Labozza, 59, of Westchester County, N.Y., who came to Baltimore just for the day.

Labozza could have been taken for someone who was missing out on most of that party. While crowds reveled all day in bright sunshine and a light breeze, he stood in a dimly lit corridor before a row of betting windows and a bank of closed-circuit TVs.

Wearing a fedora and clasping a copy of Daily Racing Form, he was actually there for the horses. He was betting every race and by the end of the 7th, he was up. By how much? He wasn't saying.

"I'm holding my own, doing OK," he said.

Many were doing more than OK in the Preakness' boozier corners.

By noon, the infield was a sea of beer and music. There was a bikini contest with a celebrity judge: former police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, dressed in a half tux and dark shades. It was a frat party, complete with beer pong. But a frat party under control.

There were no arrests.

"Good turnout, a couple intoxicated but no incidents of note," Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in a text message.

The infield used to be B.Y.O.B. bacchanalia. Last year, the Maryland Jockey Club banned outside beverages and many hard-partying Preakness regulars stayed away. This year, the club offered infielders a $20 all-you-can-drink deal, which was only too popular by some accounts.

"I've been waiting in line half the time," said Mike Fine, a 27-year-old from Towson who arrived at the infield at 9:30 a.m. and had his mug refilled three times in two hours. One frustrated bunch swiped a metal bucket and bribed a bartender to fill it with beer.

Many still managed to fulfill the command of the event's edgy new slogan, "Get Your Preak On." Two men drew a crowd as they lay passed out and — apparently thanks to some prankster — hand-in-hand on the infield grass.

Young people also bellied up to an oxygen bar and willingly strapped on the sort of plastic facial tubing that looks so sad in a nursing home but passed for hip in the Preakness infield.

Mike Schifano, 23, a Penn State senior from near Scranton, took a breath of wintergreen-scented oxygen that was supposed to be energizing.

"It was like chewing gum," he said. "I looked incredibly goofy doing it. I guess it's all part of the experience."

There was no such goofiness in the grandstands and in the even more rarified Preakness Village at Pimlico, unless you count over-the-top fashion. Among those who dressed up, there were the true believers and the poseurs.

In his blue-and-white seersucker suit, straw boat hat and pink bowtie, belt and shirt, Bob Nelson, 64, looked like someone who grew up in Philadelphia with Grace Kelly as his babysitter, which he said was the case. And the seller of commercial trucks and buses looks like that every day. The words "Bowtie Bob Nelson" are on his business card.

"I'd guess you'd call it terminal preppy," he said of his look.

For other Preakness-goers, their case of the preppies would be much more fleeting.

Aaron Merrill, 27, of Butcher's Hill, wore the same Jos. A. Bank seersucker number that Nelson sported. He paired his with a linen shirt, yellow bowtie and straw hat. But he wouldn't wear the suit to work, even if he weren't an arborist. The $300 get-up was strictly for Preakness.

In fact, Merrill and a similarly duded-up friend, Andy Vazquez, only learned early Saturday how to tie their bowties.

"We learned online," Merrill said. "It seriously took us two hours to put on this thing."

In Preakness Village at Pimlico, set apart from the infield by white picket fences, the scent of cigars wafted through the air and couples leisurely strolled over the manicured lawn, the women in sundresses and hats full of feathers and ribbons. At corporate tents for companies, such as Under Armour, Aegon Group, the Lefler Agency and Pritchard Sports and Entertainment, guests sipped cocktails and dined on shrimp and crab and fruit and cheese as waiters stood by.

The occassional sighting of a national or local celebrity added some spark. Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn said she was attending her first-ever horse race, calling the event "awesome."

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