A record Preakness crowd saw the Kentucky Derby winner streak to victory Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, tantalizing fans with the possibility that California Chrome will be the first horse in nearly four decades to win racing's coveted Triple Crown.
"That's what it's all about," said Guy Guyton, 72, of Severn. He and his wife, Lois, who were dressed in the same purple and green of California Chrome's silks, broke out in cheers along with the rest of the crowd when their favorite horse thundered past the grandstand right before crossing the finish line.
"We like the story behind him," said Guyton, who was among the record 123,469 in attendance. "It's not big money. It makes you think anybody can do it."
The horse with the modest lineage captured the hearts of many who flocked to Old Hilltop for the 139th Preakness. They were thrilled to see him take the second jewel of the Triple Crown, and many were ready to call the third race three weeks from now.
"Chrome is going to go on to Belmont and win," said Peter Auchincloss, 53, of Dickeysville. "You just saw a Triple Crown winner."
California Chrome will now try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Chrome's jockey, Victor Espinoza, rode War Emblem, one of the 12 horses in the intervening years to win the first two legs and fall short at the Belmont Stakes. The last horse to head to the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness was I'll Have Another in 2012, but he was scratched because of an injury.
It proved to be a Preakness-perfect day — sunny, cool and with a distinctly mellow vibe.
"It's the place to be," said Torrey Smith, the Ravens wide receiver, one of a host of local pro athletes who came out to watch the race.
Wearing light purple slacks, Smith described the Preakness as "awesome."
"You see a lot of great people," the former Terp said, "a lot of Maryland people."
And some of them made a few dollars as well.
Cliff Tompkins, 52, of Huntingtown was optimistic as he approached the betting window to collect his winnings. He had laid down $22 on a winning trifecta and exacta, and was hoping the two tickets he was holding were worth about $600. But when he got to the window, it turned out his winnings were only $121.
"I ain't buying dinner," he said to a friend.
John Gonzales, 38, of Seven Valleys, Pa., was a first-time bettor and was excited, but he didn't want to get carried away. He had three winning tickets and took home $277.50, more than doubling the $100 he bet.
"Beginner's luck," he said. "I don't want to get cocky, this is my first race."
The day began early for many, who lined up to claim prime spots in the infield. Once in, with a full lineup of concerts, booths selling items including funnel cakes, cigars and beer, and a lively music festival-like atmosphere, the main event seemed to be taking place far, far away.
"Most people in the infield don't know they're at a horse race," said Steve Remesch, 33, of Catonsville. He was in line by 8:30 a.m. to get in.
His uncle owned a couple of horses when he was younger, so he's been interested in the sport for more than a decade and said he was looking forward to "the excitement of the Kentucky Derby winner coming."
"Will he win the Triple Crown?" Remesch asked, echoing the thoughts of many who were equally captivated by California Chrome.
For many, going to the Preakness is a tradition, one they've grown up with and one they envision passing on to their children.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in a flowered yellow-and-brown hat, tent-hopped in Preakness Village, although she sounded as if she hadn't quite forgiven her parents for not letting her join the infield hordes when she was younger.
"I feel like I missed everything," Rawlings-Blake said. But now that she is the parent, the same ban is in effect for her 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, who will "absolutely not" be allowed to infield it when she gets older.
But presumably, she'll have a good time nonetheless.
"It's lovely, the sun is out," Rawlings-Blake said. "People are happy, they're enjoying Baltimore at its finest."
Ronald Shaffer, 44, and Delmas Hardy, 33, had their picture taken with the mayor — they said they're big fans and appreciate her support for same-sex couples like themselves. Unfortunately, at least for any mayoral re-election campaign, they live in Harford County.
They've been coming to the Preakness since 2007 and sprang for the $350-a-head Turfside Terrace tickets, which they deemed worth it for food like crab cakes, sangria and local wines, and access to a space where could watch the horse races. They came for the post selection, and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, and while they've been to the Kentucky Derby as well, the hometown jewel is their favorite.
"It's the people's party," said Shaffer, who opens restaurants for various chains. "The Derby's very corporate, and this is much easier. It's right down the road, there's the sunrise tours and the jockey autographs."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, at his last Preakness in office, said he believes he is leaving the racing and horse-breeding industries in better shape than when he took over.
"I will be turning over the Woodlawn Vase knowing that racing will be saved in Maryland," said O'Malley, noting how casino revenues have bolstered those industries. "I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to all the members of the General Assembly that came together to keep the Preakness in Maryland."
If Saturday's weather was perfect, the rain of the previous day left its legacy underfoot: muddy patches that threatened stiletto heels and infield blankets alike, especially in the well-trafficked parts of the track.
Anticipating the possible mess, Emily Greene, 23, and Charlotte Cameron, 23, thought carefully about their footwear for the day. In the end, both opted for sandals, despite leaving their toes exposed to the brownish sludge outside the beer tent.
But, of course, one must sacrifice for fashion.
"Rain boots obviously wouldn't go with this hat," Cameron said.
And Green decided her Michael Kors sandals were coming to the end of their life span anyway and could be retired after doing Preakness duty.
You could say George Wilson and Carl Patty skirted the usual male fashion dilemmas: shorts or long pants, bow or regular tie. They wore kilts.
"It's the most comfortable thing a man could ever wear," Patty said.
Patty has worn his Marine Corps tartan for every Preakness in the past 15 years.
Wilson, whose kilt sported a Navy decoration, wears his to honor his late father, a Naval Academy graduate. It's been his Pimlico attire for the past four years.
The only drawback, they said: Going to the bathroom.
"You have to use the stalls," Wilson said, rather than the urinals.
In rowdier times, the portable toilets hosted rooftop races in which runners would be pelted with cans of beer. But in the years since the track stopped allowing Preakness-goers to haul in their own unlimited quantities of booze, the infield has become a mellower place, mostly. Seventeen people were ejected from the racetrack Saturday, three of whom police ordered out and the rest removed by Pimlico's security team, Baltimore police spokesman Detective Sgt. Jarron L. Jackson said. No arrests were made.
Jenny Jackson, 30, hit up a specialty market in Philadelphia and loaded up on salami, prosciutto, olive-and-fig crackers, and a blue cheese recommended by the grocer.
She sat on a blanket with Valerija Andreea, 29, enjoying the food just before noon.
"That's how we usually tailgate, nice food," Jackson said. "But it's OK to have a hamburger, too."
Inside the packed inflatable Jagermeister tent, though, Joe Cascio, 21, was doing his best to recapture the wilder days of the infield.
He hauled himself up onto a table and began hooting and chanting loudly, with others below joining in.
It only lasted a few seconds, but with his feet back on the ground, the Harford County resident was amped up.
"I love Preakness," he said. "Greatest thing in Maryland right now."
While they had seats in the grandstand, a group of friends from their days at the University of Virginia couldn't resist checking out the famous infield.
If they looked a bit out of place in their preppy bow ties and pastels, they certainly were infielders in spirit.
"We had our first drinks at 7 [a.m.]," said Ryan Gosselin, 25, a Wall Street broker with Goldman Sachs. "They're called manmosas — champagne, orange juice and vodka." The last ingredient, apparently, is what makes the drink more manly than the regular mimosa.
In the grandstands, the horses rather than high jinks were the attraction.
As the horses sped down the track in one of the day's earlier races, David Kelly, 38, pressed against the fence in the grandstands, calling out excitedly.
"All right, take it easy," said his mother, Frances Kelly, 78, with a laugh. Her husband, Edward Kelly, 77, studied a racing guide, making notes in the margin.
David Kelly, who has Down syndrome, has been riding horses since he was 13 and has been a fan of racing ever since.
Horse racing is one of the Pennington, N.J., family's few shared interests, said Frances Kelly. "This is something we all enjoy," she said. "We drive down every year."
Her son, who works as a mailroom clerk, has an uncanny talent for picking winners, she said. "He can see a horse and instantly tell if it's a winner," she said.
As if on cue, David Kelly jumped up, yelling, "I won!" He swept away bystanders in his excitement, sharing hugs and high-fives.
"Are you sure?" said his mother, scanning the ticket. "Oh you did. You are so lucky."
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