Preakness 2012

The finish of the 137th Preakness Stakes with I'll Have Another beating Bodemeister at the finish line. (Kenneth K. Lam / May 19, 2012)

The largest crowd in Preakness Stakes history watched the thrilling victory of a horse that's now on a Triple Crown hunt, jammed to pop band Maroon 5 and basked under a Saturday sky whose only clouds were the wispy letters of an advertisement sprayed from a plane.

Bettors in the Turfside Terrace, a massive white tent along the home stretch at Pimlico Race Course, watched anxiously as the 137th Preakness ended just as many had predicted — with Derby champ I'll Have Another and also-favored Bodemeister vying for the win. When I'll Have Another surged late to win by a nose — and continued his bid for what would be the first Triple Crown triumph since 1978 — they erupted into cheers, clutching their betting tickets and hugging.

"It's so much fun," said Mike Joy of Exton, Pa., the biggest winner at his table, hauling in $105. "This is my first horse race. It's been more fun than I could ever have imagined."

The sentiment is something politicians and horse racing industry leaders have been eager to hear.

Horse racing officials said the record crowd demonstrated the success of changes made in recent years to stem flagging interest in the sport: instituting an all-you-can-drink deal, stepping up entertainment options and using slot machine gambling revenue to improve race tracks. The record crowd of 121,300 came in the fourth year of a new twist on Preakness, an end to a bring-your-own-beer infield policy that garnered a less than flattering reputation.

"The numbers say it all. We had a tremendous event," Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said in a statement. "We knew in 2009 when we changed the landscape of the infield it would take three or four years to get to where we needed to get, and we are back."

The record crowd surpassed 2007 attendance by less than 100 people. It completed a rebound in Preakness attendance, which fell by a third in 2009 to 78,000 but grew to 107,000 by last year. The handle was $80,463,005 — the sixth-highest betting pool in Preakness history.

While the infield fest was still beer-soaked, a crowd that has developed a reputation for being rowdy was relatively peaceful. Nine people were ejected from Pimlico and one arrested for unruly behavior.

"Now, it's built back to an event the city can be proud of hosting," city police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said during a patrol through Pimlico. "Everyone is happy. People are well-behaved and having a great time."

Saturday morning, the revelry started early, to be sure.

At 9:30 a.m., Debbie Reed, 45, of Sterling, Va., danced as the band Mr. Greengenes played a version of the Oasis song, "Don't Look Back in Anger."

"This is my first of many," she said, pointing to the beer in her hand. Lines snaked around the lawn chairs Saturday morning as partiers waited half an hour or more for neon yellow mugs that, for $20, they could refill an unlimited number of times.

The good times weren't limited to the infield. Tom Bogovich led a group of 10 men from Pennsylvania coal country, having made the trip with his buddies every year since 1994. They stay in the Hampton Inn downtown and have a hotel van shuttle them to Pimlico. They pored over the Preakness program before each race, making their bets and watching the horses gallop by from trackside tables under a tent.

"We do some betting, some partying," said Dan Rupp, a member of the crew from Mount Carmel, Pa. "I'd say a lot of betting and a lot of partying."

His bet paid off: Rupp picked both I'll Have Another and Bodemeister to finish among the top four.

As always, there were those who had no interest in horse racing.

"I'm in it for the experience," said Megan Yardchik, a Federal Hill resident attending her third straight Preakness and sporting a wide-brimmed, gold-and-white-striped straw hat. Yardchik and friends Leah Rogan and Matthew Egan staked out a spot near a massive, dome-shaped Jagermeister tent in the middle of the infield, mostly indifferent to the horses circling them but eager for the chance to win money by betting on them.

Paige Tanner of Lancaster, Pa., celebrated both Preakness and an end to her life as a single woman. The 24-year-old, whose wedding is set for July, reunited with girlfriends from Elizabethtown College for a bachelorette party at Pimlico.

Her bridal tiara and garter drew attention from the infield crowds, she said.