Blue sky, tame crowds greet Preakness fans

Maryland's own Animal Kingdom comes in Place

May 21, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

As the Preakness Nation gathered for the 136th time on Saturday, it could count its blessings any number of ways — a sky so brightly blue the ladies really did need their bountifully brimmed hats, an infield scene that seemed as beer-soaked as ever yet also tamer, and, most of all, a horse race that was in doubt until the last step.

Maryland's own Animal Kingdom finished second, a half-length behind Shackleford, disappointing home fans and ending any chance of a Triple Crown, last accomplished in 1978. Astrology, co-owned by Baltimore County native George Bolton, came in third.

"I would've loved to have seen a Triple Crown winner," said Marilyn Maitland of Harrisonburg, Va., a longtime horse rider and racing aficionado. "But it was still just fabulous. It was unexpected. It was a close pack at the end."

For the most part though, the party overshadowed the finish for the crowd of 107,398, the sixth largest. It simply wouldn't be springtime in Baltimore without a trip to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness.

"I've been the first through the gate for the last 15 years," claimed Pat Curran, 30, who had crime-taped a portion of primo real estate in the infield right by the track fence. "I eat doughnuts with the security guards."

He spent much of the morning studying and jotting notes in his program, deciding which horses to bet on.

"When I was 18, 19, 20, we came for the party," said Curran, a plumber and former wrestler at Archbishop Curley High School, "and then slowly, we realized there were horses here."

His friends, Skip and Frances Piatt, consider the Preakness part of their anniversary celebration since it always comes around their wedding date — May 15. "It keeps our marriage fresh," Skip Piatt said.

The couple have some local favorites in the race: "We're from Cecil County, where Animal Kingdom is practically in our back yard," said Frances Piatt, 37.

After a week of rain, Saturday's sunny skies had seemingly everyone in a good mood and primed for Baltimore's biggest outdoor party.

"It's the best weather we've ever had, and actually I think there's more optimism around racing and the future of racing," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, who toured the Stakes barn and tent-hopped in the corporate village. "I think there's a sense that we're past the state of gridlock we've been mired in with slots."

O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown were among the politicians, celebrities, race fans and partiers who descended on Old Hilltop for the daylong festivities, which were part of a whole weekend full of events for many.

"It's phenomenal," Jeff Tarr, 54, of Cleveland, said of his first trip to Baltimore. "We were at a party in Silo Point [Friday] night, and the races [Friday] when everyone was in pink," he said of Black-Eyed Susan Day, which promotes breast cancer research. "And we bet on Shackleford."

In the crowd were Preakness veterans and virgins alike, those who are part of ever-shifting groups of friends who make it a point to come together every year for the event, as well as those who were starting what may become their own annual tradition.

For newcomers, the infield can be disorienting, a sprawling field of blankets and coolers, booze stands and betting windows, and, somewhere, the track.

"I don't even know where I am," said Mark Fisher, 22, a Hopkins med student. "Where are the horses?"

With six blankets, a cooler and bags of food – "They're Type A," Fisher said of his fellow med students — they were looking forward to kicking back as they neared the end of an intense year.

"It's been a long year," said Julia Thorn, 23. "We were going to come anyway, but it helped that it came at the end of the year."

For more than a few in the infield, Preakness isn't only about the ponies. They set up their chairs and blankets for the best view of one of the concert stages rather than the track.

"Isn't Preakness really about the music?" said Cathy Frederick, 45, a nurse and waitress from Boston.

It certainly is for her pal of 31 years, Teresa Morales, 44, a homemaker and self-described Train follower. (How closely does she follow them? This is her 11th show and she knows the roadies by name.) Between the two of them, they left seven kids behind for the weekend because, as Morales said, "Train makes me happy."

They're staying with Laura Jordan, 44, a friend of Frederick's from their college days at Tulane who lives in Mount Washington. ("Put in that she's single and ready to mingle," Frederick, in true friendship mode, advised. So noted.) They planned to skip out after the concert and continue their Preakness party at Jordan's home, where they figured they'd have a better view of the races anyway.

"I literally live around the corner," said Jordan, a school counselor. "We're going to leave after the concert and have a cookout at home."

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