For instance, Virginia's Rappahannock Community College is preparing to host its eighth annual Preakness party, its biggest fundraising event of the year. Not only do the 450 tickets sell out two months in advance, the gala raises more than $50,000 each year for scholarships and educational programs.

Victor Clough, Rappahannock's dean of college advancement, said the party planning committee never even considered scheduling the gala to coincide with the Derby or Belmont.

Was the deciding factor the school's proximity to Baltimore, just 165 miles to the northeast? Did administrators fall for the quirky charms of the citadel on the Chesapeake?

"Not really," Clough said. "We made the decision based on the weather."

It seems that the fundraiser is held outdoors and on the grounds of historic mansions. In early May, when the Derby is held, the Virginia weather is still unreliable. By the time the Belmont is run in June, it can get hot and muggy. But the third weekend in May?

"It's in the small window for great weather," Clough said.

The genesis of other Preakness parties was equally accidental.

For example, when Penn State shifts its weight, everyone in Happy Valley jumps. When graduation weekend moved this year to the first weekend in May, the State College Young Professionals knew they would have to rethink their annual Kentucky Derby party. The service organization was left scrambling to come up with a theme for its annual benefit for PAWS, an animal-welfare organization.

As event organizer Kristen Connolly tells it, the sports bar that had been booked for the party happens to be decorated in the Pittsburgh Steelers colors of yellow and black. Someone noticed that those coincidentally are two of the three colors on Maryland's state flag.

"'Preakness for PAWS sounded good," Connolly said. "We started thinking, and things just started falling into place."

And, before you could say, "Pimlico," another Preakness party was born.

Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Gorelick contributed to this article.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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