The Preakness it's not. No mobs of young people in the infield or fancily dressed women in colorful hats in the grandstand or even live horses running around Pimlico's dirt track.
Still, hundreds of dedicated race fans showed up at the Northwest Baltimore track Saturday to watch and bet on simulcast broadcasts of horses running in Delaware, New Jersey and New York, as they waited for a horse with the unlikely name of Drosselmeyer to win the 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes, racing's third leg of the Triple Crown. Fans, mostly older men, occupied three levels of the Club House. The $5 admission offered access to the buffet-equipped Sports Palace at the top, as well as to the terraced Jockey Club, its tables offering a grand view of the empty track.
"We used to come all the time," said Paula Helfand, 61, of Owings Mills, a veteran fan who said she's been to tracks all over the country and knows some of the jockeys. "It's not the same; nobody's here," she said. If not for the Belmont Stakes, Saturday's crowd would be smaller by two-thirds, she said. "I come to bet," she said. "I like to be here. I like the excitement, the people yelling."
James Rice, 52, also from Owings Mills, said he comes to Pimlico six or seven times a year, but he likes the smaller crowds, and doesn't go to the Preakness because of the hassles with traffic and the higher prices.
Ken Clark, 47, a plumber from Dundalk, said he came just to bet on the Belmont Stakes. He went to Laurel Park on Preakness Day to have fun and escape the crowds, he said.
"I love the great atmosphere. It's lots of fun," he said. He won $2,370 with a $2 bet in the Kentucky Derby by picking the first-, second- and third-place winners in order.
"It's just the excitement of racing," he said, adding that he follows individual horses and studies the odds, but he's worried and "scared" he said, about the future of racing in Maryland. "Only the big races draw crowds."
With neither Super Saver, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, or Lookin at Lucky, who won the Preakness, running at Belmont , no Triple Crown winner is possible this year. Ice Box, who finished second in the Derby, was the pre-race favorite.
"It'll be a good day," Maryland Jockey Club spokesman Mike Gathagan had said earlier, but clearly not the kind of racing event Baltimore's veteran fans of the sport fondly remember.
Pimlico has live racing only 20 days a year during a six-week stretch in the spring, ending immediately after the Preakness, Gathagan said. Live Maryland racing will resume later this year at Laurel Park, though no firm date for that meet has been set, Gathagan said. Meanwhile, fans flocked to the track for the Belmont Stakes.
"Belmont has a really good card," Gathagan said, and that is helping Pimlico, too.
Pimlico gets a percentage of every dollar wagered, though it is split with horse owners.
"Everybody gets a little piece of the pie," he said. Still, times are getting tougher for racing at Pimlico.
A decade ago, the Jockey Club's tracks hosted 250 days of racing a year, but that is down to 150 days now, Gathagan said, with the vast majority of race days at Laurel Park. Pimlico, in Northwest Baltimore, exists mainly as the setting for the nationally televised Preakness, which last month drew nearly 96,000 people to Old Hilltop.
Meanwhile, people can still go to Pimlico for the simulcast broadcasts.
Anthony Mclamb, 42, of Towson, said he's been going to Pimlico since he was 5, and the deterioration is obvious. The electronic betting machines are older and the food a little less enticing.
Upstairs at the Jockey Club, Gaetano DeLuca's shouts were the loudest as two horses battled head to head at the finish line at Monmouth in New Jersey. Despite the 51-year-old Towsonite's loud urgings, his horse, No. 7, named Charles Russell, lost by a nose. DeLuca exhaled deeply and quickly settled back to finish his buffet roast beef.
"In this game, you gotta be first," he said.
Mike Suter, 48, his tablemate, said it's really all about the camaraderie. "It's just a fun way to spend the day," he said. "The crowd, the atmosphere; it's a better feeling."
One floor below, Larry Morse, 63, of Randallstown said something similar. To him, it's seeing the regulars that have come to be friends.
"I like to talk to the guys. It's like a meeting place. We even have special seats," he said, explaining that the bench next to him is left empty for a friend who died.