The Preakness has been around for nearly a century-and-a-half, and in recent years has been attracting crowds approaching 150,000. You’d think it would have few secrets, that people would have the Preakness-going experience down pat.
But some tricks remain, some tips that experienced Preakness denizens are happy to pass on to their less-veteran associates. Pimlico is a big place, and the crowds on Preakness Saturday can be intimidating.
In the name of making everyone’s Preakness experience as fulfilling as possible, we asked Mike Gathagan, who attended his first Preakness in 1985 and for 14 years served as a liaison between the middle jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown and the media covering it, to offer tips on experiencing the day to its fullest. Gathagan’s last race as an employee of the Maryland Jockey Club was 2014, but he remains a fan and plans on being there Saturday. Here are some of his suggestions:
Watch the race from the Turfside Terrace. It’s not cheap — a ticket will run you $450 — but it’s worth it, Gathagan promises. Located next to the turf course rail, seats here make you feel a part of the action better than anywhere else. “You’re right there at the rail,” he says, and the thundering sound of the horses’ hooves as they approach and speed by is a thrill that’s hard to match. “It’s definitely the place you want to go,” he says.
Don’t forget Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. The race for three-year-old fillies doesn’t get all the ink the Preakness does, but it’s spectacular nonetheless, and a great way to experience the excitement of Pimlico without having to negotiate the teeming hordes of Preakness Saturday. “I do believe the Black-Eyed Susan day is under-appreciated,” Gathagan says. “For one thing, there’s going to be about 40,000 people there, instead of more than 120,000.” He also notes that betting is a little easier at the Black-Eyed Susan, “and you can often walk out of there with some money.” So, to sum up: Checking out the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes can be both fun, and profitable. What’s not to like there?
That said, avoid Black-Eyed Susans, the drink. “They’re gonna hate me for this, but I wouldn’t drink the Black-Eyed Susans,” Gathagan says of the Preakness’ signature cocktail, a mix of vodka, orange juice and varying amounts of rum or whiskey. “I don’t think they’re very good. But then,” Gathagan admits, “I’m a beer man, myself.”
If you’re new to the betting game, pay attention to the pro analysts. Between races, analysts and handicappers will be offering advice and recommendations on video screens throughout Pimlico, and it would be a good idea to listen to what they say. They know what they’re talking about, probably far more than you do. “If you’re not a bettor, follow the guys and the ladies who come up between the races,” Gathagan says. “They’re there for a reason.”
Take out a few $2 bets on Kentucky Derby winner Justify, and if he wins the Preakness, don’t cash them. That way, if there ends up being a Triple Crown winner — like there was in 2015 with American Pharoah, the first since 1978 — you’ve got a very cool souvenir. “You get a lot of that at Preakness,” Gathagan says. And while chances are you’ll end up being disappointed — there have only been 12 Triple Crown winners since 1919 — if lightning does strike and Justify becomes number 13, you’ll be ready.
Don’t focus on running into any celebs, and maybe you will. Most of the beautiful people will be seated in areas you can’t afford, often roped-off and out of sight of most of the crowd. But they do sometimes wander about — a number of Ravens players tend to show up, Gathagan says. Maybe you’ll get lucky, and potentially a little starstruck. “If you want to hang out with celebrities, you gotta shell out the big money,” he says. “But you never know who you’re going to run into, just wandering around.”