It would be easy for City Paper to take the position the Preakness sucks. The crowd, after all, is overwhelmingly stuffed shirts, blue bloods, and what our art director Joe MacLeod referred to as "Easter Catholics," people who turn up to the racetrack once a year for the high holiday of Maryland racing and don't show their face for another year.
But that argument is not going to be made here. While no track regular, I have been to Pimlico and Laurel on regular racing days enough to know what it's like to play the ponies with closer to 100 people than 100,000. Seeing the place bustling with patrons and waiting in long lines (for food, for bets, for Black Eyed Susans, and just about everything else) was a welcome sight over the typical humdrum of a Saturday afternoon.
The crowd brought a palpable energy and excitement to the rickety old grandstand and concourse at Old Hilltop, creating a noticeable buzz when the pack of horses came around the final turn and began the surge for the finish line. For me, it served as proof the old-timers who lament the loss of the good ol' days are right when they say the Preakness and Maryland racing are a tradition worth fighting for.
I got there a little after 10 a.m. with $100 of spending money and a $25 general admission ticket in my pocket. The ticket didn't guarantee much of anything, not even a seat. At the very top of the grandstand I was able to find a nice perch along a railing that gave me a view of the entire track and ample access to betting windows (though the latter is never really in short supply). In truth, I'm not even sure I was technically allowed to be there. But nobody seemed to mind when I hunkered down with a program and a beer.
I would describe my own ability to read a racing program as competent. I know where to find the speed ratings. I have a sense of how horses fare in certain distances. I can kind of read the results from a previous race and have a sense of just what happened. Trying to divine something from all that information is another thing altogether.
On the second race, I hit the exacta, which paid $18 on a $3 bet (never said I was a high roller), and a few races later I played a hunch that a 45-to-1 long shot would place and hit again. That paid $80.50 on a $5 bet.
From there, the afternoon was a blood letting of my wallet on food, drinks, and bets that never really came close to paying off. It's hard to feel too bad about my betting woes, though. Even the people who can read a race form like the back of their hand are only making what at best amounts to an educated guess. Besides, not all of the bad guesses are even that terrible. So long as your pick doesn't miss the mark completely, there are few greater thrills in sports than cheering your horse to the finish. You end up pumping your fist clenching your betting slip and shouting like a mad man as the jockey tries to push the horse as much as he or she can. As a friend of mine who was relatively new to horse racing said, "I can see why this is fun."
Things got even more fun, and a bit more surreal, when another friend managed to get me tickets to one of the most prominent corporate tents on the infield. From the outhouse to the penthouse.
On my way out there, I walked right by Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, whom I didn't recognize immediately now that he has cut off his dreadlocks. And then it was like you couldn't walk 10 feet without tripping over a famous person. Suddenly there was a Kevin Spacey here, an Arthur Jones there, a Herm Edwards over that way (he's as loud in person as you'd expect).
Inside the Longines tent (Longines is a Swiss watchmaker. Go figure.), there were tables of free food, a betting station, and most importantly, several open bars. Out with the $5 Coors Light bottles, in with the gratis Dewar's. The tent featured a huge porch overlooking the finish line, and guests were able to get as close as a white picket fence right up against the rail of the turf track—a prime viewing spot for the Preakness Stakes.
On the advice of a horse racing writer I follow on Twitter, I bet $5 on the Orb-Departing-Mylute trifecta. Thinking I would kick my own ass if those three crossed the finish line in a different order, I opted to box a second bet, which cost about $20 (not quite sure about that price. I had knocked back a couple scotches by this point).
As anybody who watched the race already knows, none of those results came close. Oxbow took a lead early on and was never really challenged, despite the slow pace. The crowd, which seemed so eager to see hometown hero Orb take the next step on the path to the Triple Crown, was plenty disappointed when the Kentucky Derby winner could not deliver as the favorite.
Following another loser bet in the 13th and final race, I was down to my last $20. But when you really break it down, that means I only dropped $80 on a roller coaster ride of an afternoon that saw me go from flush with cash in the rafters of Pimlico to broke as a joke while somehow surrounded by people who most likely have more money than they know what to do with.
Something of an odd reversal, that. But it was absolutely an awesome trip—one I wouldn't hesitate to take again.