Preakness hats

Sharon Garry, left, shows off a few of this year's creations with friends Colleen Maclean, middle, and Sue Gensen. (Photo by Noah Scialom / May 17, 2012)

Andy Warhol said we'll all get our 15 minutes of fame, but he didn't say those minutes had to be consecutive.

For 69-year-old Sharon Garry, they come at the rate of about two per year and they come at the Preakness, Maryland's Day at the Races at Pimlico Racetrack. Every year, she says, she is filmed sporting one of the eye-catching hats she designs and decorates for the day's festivities.

Would the Ellicott City resident have been, or be, a milliner in another life? She doesn't know, but, "I never made hats before, and I'm not interested in making them for other occasions or as a business.

"Every year I say, 'OK, it's the last time.' Until the next year."


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Since she began producing her hats some eight or nine years ago, all have been done in Maryland flag colors and Preakness-themed trims — that is, some combination of floral and equine elements. No crabs, "Hons" or sailboats allowed.

Nor do Garry's creations involve tiny tracks being circled by battery-operated steeds, or look like they could top a Vegas showgirl. Although she acknowledges them to be over-the-top, it's only by one or two "goofy" elements, such as a horse head peeking out of a clump of black-eyed Susans or a couple of mini-Maryland flags bringing up the hat's rear (when the horseshoe originally placed there proved too heavy).

The latter hat, a black bowler-style number, is Garry's own, as well as the popular favorite.

At the race, Garry and her friends "get big-time feedback," according to repeat guest Colleen Maclean. "We're close to the rail so we get a lot of attention from the press. There are a lot of hats, but hers have such detail compared to the others!"

All this headgear is constructed on a blue-and-white coffee canister on her kitchen table, reveals the retired Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville student services office manager. Glimpsed several weeks before the race (to be held Saturday, May 19), this year's then-unfinished model has a black-and-white striped broad brim, lemonade-color netting and black-eyed-Susan braided trim. Only Garry knows what has been added since.

And only once has she recycled a hat. Any she makes as gifts for fellow attendees are always unique — different from her own or each other.

"She gets to know people, and the hats will have a look consistent with what they prefer. It's a study in personality traits, not just shopping," says friend and fellow Preakness attendee George Lavery, whose wife and daughters have been past recipients.

"You could measure Sharon's hats in pounds, but she keeps them balanced and on her head the whole day," he adds with a chuckle. "Making them is as big a part of the day for her as the race or the pre-race festivities."

Though Lavery personally prefers a Preakness or Pimlico baseball cap, Garry's husband Bill and a male guest were treated to suitably tricked-out straw fedoras one year.

Garry started out seeking basic hats at garage sales but graduated to stores such asMacy's, T. J. Maxx and Hats in the Belfry, sometimes starting from scratch and sometimes adding elements to those already there. She has considered, but rejected, trying a Princess Kate-style fascinator.

But "I could have fun with a pillbox," she muses.

Love of racing

Over a coffee table covered with hats sporting tiny horses, tiny horseshoes, tiny picket fence obstacles and buttons proclaiming Preakness and "We Grow Horses," Garry says that beyond the silk black-eyed Susans, "One of the biggest difficulties has been finding things to put on them." Even that lightweight pony shoe turned out to be too heavy. The e-commerce website Etsy has lately been a great source of trim and supplies, she said.

Even though she views her creations as "cartoon vs. couture" among the glamorous hats that Preakness attendees copy from the Kentucky Derby in greater numbers annually, anything that brings more attention to Maryland horse racing has got to be good, she believes.

"We have something only two other states have — a Triple Crown race. Racing and the Preakness are important to Maryland," Garry maintains, citing all the jobs they create and visitors they bring. "We should appreciate them more."

Garry wasn't one of those little girls who grew up loving horses, nor was she a rider herself. But since CCBC's "Day at the Races" celebration some years ago, she and her husband have become fans, attending races at Pimlico, Laurel and Saratoga in New York.

"I love to see them ride," she explains. "The jockeys are heroic."

Is it any surprise that even before this year's big race, she was already contemplating how best to work some Maryland flag red into the hat color mix, and how to produce a hat of shiny gold?

That is doubtless the earliest tip for next year's Preakness.