No Triple Crown winner this year, no first-female-jockey-to-win, no sunshine? No problem, said those who flocked to Pimlico Race Course on Saturday and waited out a midafternoon downpour to watch Oxbow leave behind Kentucky Derby winner Orb to capture the 138th Preakness Stakes.
"This is always an exciting race," said Tom Meek, 59, of Phoenixville, Pa., smoking a postrace cigar. "As much as I love Orb and as much as I want a Triple Crown, this is great for Oxbow. That horse rocked."
The cool, cloudy morning turned cold after showers, which sent the hatted and suited corporate village denizens ducking for cover under their white tents and the infielders scrounging for ponchos, garbage bags and other makeshift coverings. But the 117,203 Preakness-goers — the fourth-largest crowd in the race's history — generally didn't let the rain dampen the day.
"It's a tradition we look forward to every year," said Jeff Jones, 60, of State College, Pa., who with friends like Meek travels to Pimlico every year. "Life goes on but we always come back to the Preakness."
Jones, who is a self-described look-a-like of trainer Bob Baffert, and Meek were particularly thrilled that Oxbow's jockey, 50-year-old Gary Stevens, is closer to their age than most jockeys.
"We feel like the guys in 'Diner' or 'Tin Men' when we come down here," Meek said, referring to those classic Baltimore-set movies by Barry Levinson. " 'We're going to leave work and go to the track.' "
The fourth-place finish by Orb, a heavy favorite, validated Shirley Stalvey's hunch. The Jacksonville, Fla, resident, here on vacation and at her first Preakness, saw the long odds and bet on Oxbow.
"Why?" she asked rhetorically. "Nobody liked him, so I figured he would win."
As the horses thundered down the home stretch, a large crowd around Stalvey prevented her from seeing the finish. When she looked at the leader board and saw No. 6 flash in first place, she hooted, hollered and jumped up and down in her straw hat.
She won $60. But the day meant much, much more. "It's my 77th birthday," she exclaimed.
Even those who lost money on the race didn't seem too distraught.
Two minutes before the race, Kim Waltrip was getting anxious. She had put $48 on Orb and Mylute, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, a rising female jockey who got her start at Pimlico.
"Somebody just grab me when I pass out," said Waltrip, who came from Missouri to watch the race with family. "I am already shaking. I can't look."
But she did look, screaming her heart out to no avail. Neither of her horses placed in the money.
"There goes my $48," she said.
But at least she had a good time at her first Preakness. "There's just so much energy and excitement," she said.
Track officials said $81,940,233 was bet on Saturday's races, the sixth highest amount for Preakness day. Attendance was the fourth highest in history, with last year's 121,300 still the record.
For many, the draw was the music, the drinking and the spectacle.
Fueled by a performance by Pitbull, Barbara Jedrzejek, 26, danced away in the back of the infield. It was her first Preakness, and it was a good one, she said.
"I expected it to be a good show, but it exceeded my expectations," she said. "There's a sense of community."
For some regulars, the Preakness has become an annual touchstone that is as much an opportunity to get together with friends and families as birthdays and anniversaries.
Back in 1991, Marty Alexa told his fiancee as she planned their wedding: Make it any day but May 19, Preakness Day.
But as fate and church availability would have it, that's when they had to schedule their wedding — and it remains the last time Alexa, 57, of Silver Spring remembers not making it to the second race in the Triple Crown. At least there's the benefit of knowing that every year, the Preakness and their anniversary fall around the same time.
"It's so Maryland," said Alexa, who strung tickets from Preaknesses past onto the straw hat he was wearing on Saturday. "It's just such a wonderful tradition that we started and continued over the years."
His wife Kerry, though, had to miss the race as she recovered from gallbladder surgery. Her ticket, and her similarly ticket-bedecked hat, went to their friend, Bill Yates, 65, also of Silver Spring.
For Metti Kanno, a local physician, the Preakness is an opportunity to socialize and dress up. She picked out her neon-green fascinator with great care, finding it online at the British store Hats by Cressida. This was her fourth Preakness and the first time she wasn't on call.
"I just like coming and being around all the diverse people," Kanno said. "It is a nice positive event for Baltimore."
Tory Leggio and Jrue Wolski normally attend the Kentucky Derby, but this year the college buddies had a wedding when the first Triple Crown race took place. So the 28-year-old men who live in Atlanta decided to sample the Preakness instead.