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Preakness parties gallop across state lines

EquestrianPreakness StakesColleges and UniversitiesKentucky DerbyTriple CrownBelmont StakesKegasus (fictional character)

The Preakness is, let's face it, the dark horse on the nation's party planning circuit.

After all, the second leg of the Triple Crown is squeezed between its more challenging and prestigious cousins, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. And, it's held in proudly fashion-averse Baltimore.

Nonetheless, there are a few pioneering socialites and trailblazing doyennes living in states such as Kentucky and Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For them, the Preakness' underdog status practically demands a celebration — and the more fancy hats and black-eyed Susan centerpieces the better.

"The Preakness is sort of the forgotten race," said Cristie Ritz-King, a New Jersey resident, self-avowed party planning fanatic and author of the blog therighthandmom.com. "People are supposed to have Kentucky Derby parties, not parties to watch the lesser-known 'baby brother' race that follows. We think people should treat the Preakness with the same respect."

And a few hardy souls are doing just that.

A couple from Lexington, Ky., for instance, has been throwing an annual Preakness party for the past quarter-century that is currently attended by more than 100 friends and neighbors.

For the eighth year in a row, a community college in Virginia will hold a gala celebration Saturday night, complete with a big hat contest and a black-eyed Susan-themed decor.

Preakness fundraising events will be held this weekend by a group of young professionals in State College, Pa.; by a Florida farm that uses horses as therapy for people with disabilities; and by an arts council in North Carolina.

An online article can be found at ehow.com titled "How to Throw a Preakness Dinner Party."

"Have a keg at your party and label it 'Kegasus,' contributing writer Jane Ellis suggests. "If you want to be a little more creative, create horse-like legs out of cardboard tubes, add a tail, and attach them to the sides of the keg. You can also serve the black-eyed Susan drink."

Ritz-King may be a Garden Stater now, but she grew up in Silver Spring. When her plans to throw a Preakness party conflicted with an event at her children's elementary school, she begged administrators to reschedule.

"We had the party all planned out," she said. "I was going to introduce our Jersey friends to Maryland culture. It was going to be the anti-Derby party. We were going to serve Natty Boh beer. I was going to dress in the colors of the state flag and have big hair."

When school administrators turned Ritz-King down flat, she was forced to put her Preakness plans on ice. At least for this year.

"My husband and I have sort of made it our mission to introduce Old Bay, the Preakness and real crabs to New Jersey," she said. "It's all part of the same culture. We try to explain to people that you have to wade through a lot of goo before you get to the beautiful center."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Maryland and the race receive a bit more attention in bluegrass country — though, at times, the locals have been forced to fudge the details.

For the past 25 years, Steve and Debra Willett Hupman have thrown a Preakness party for a crowd that now exceeds 100. Two other couples host gatherings for the Derby and Belmont Stakes.

But duplicating an authentic Maryland atmosphere, not to mention its seafood-based cuisine, has proved a challenge.

"You just can't get fresh crab around here," Hupman said, "so my husband grills salmon instead. But, we do the Preakness punch and the Preakness salad, and people can bet on the races. One year, I couldn't find black-eyed Susans for the centerpieces. So, I bought yellow daisies instead and colored the middles with a black magic marker."

In Kentucky, it's not unusual to celebrate every event of the Triple Crown. But galas thrown in honor of the Preakness — and only of the Preakness — can be found in other states.

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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