The Preakness, a 145-year-old tradition that annually attracts more spectators than any other sporting event in Maryland, is far bigger than just a horse race. For the week leading up to it, the entire Baltimore area becomes happily Preakness-obsessed: Heck, even giant balloons and the Chesapeake Bay's favorite crustaceans get in on the act.
Here's a rundown of eight ways the region can help you get pumped up for the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, set for May 19 at Pimlico Race Course. Some will take you to the home of the Preakness itself, while others showcase nearby businesses and attractions hoping to shine in its reflected glory.
May 11-13: Preakness Balloon Festival
Such a sight, as more than a dozen hot-air balloons float their way into the Howard County sky. You can stare at them (they're especially beautiful after dusk, all lit up), you can ride them ($20 for a tethered ride, $225 to soar majestically, without tether), but whatever, it's impossible not to be impressed, and delighted, by them. Includes food, a beer and wine garden, a kids' zone and music from Pressing Strings, Higher Education, Spencer Joyce, Rhett Repko, Shiftwork and others. 4 p.m.-9 p.m. May 11, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. May 12, plus early-morning viewing and balloon rides from 6:15 a.m.-9 a.m. both days, 6:15 a.m.-8 a.m. May 13. At the Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Fairgrounds Road, West Friendship. preaknessballoonfestival.com.
May 12: Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest
Such overindulgence! See if your stomach has what it takes, capacity-wise, to become a world-champion hot dog eater. The top male and female hot dog gorgers from this sanctioned competition (who knew they they had to be sanctioned?) will qualify for this year's world championships, a July 4 tradition at New York's Coney Island. Be warned, this is serious business: Last year's men's world champion downed 72 Nathan's hot dogs (with buns) in 10 minutes (the women's winner consumed 41). But if you think you've got what it takes, by all means, have at it. 5 p.m. Part of the Preakness Balloon Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Fairgrounds Road, West Friendship. preaknessballoonfestival.com.
May 15-18: Sunrise at Old Hilltop
Watch the sun rise over good old Pimlico (sadly, the infield rise that gave Old Hilltop its nickname is long gone, but one can still imagine) and enjoy an early-morning tour of the racetrack. With luck, you'll be able to watch the horses go through their paces, maybe even chat with a trainer or two. 6 a.m.-9 a.m. daily at Pimlico, 5201 Park Heights Ave. Free. pimlico.com.
May 16: America's Best Racing Preakness Party
For the fifth year, the folks at Sagamore Racing will be raising money for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance through this pre-Preakness bash. For $15, you get a complimentary drink and snacks, you can bid on silent-auction items including racing memorabilia from the Jockey Club, and you might even win tickets to the big race. 7 p.m.-10 p.m. at the Mt. Washington Tavern, 5700 Newbury St. Tickets through eventbrite.com.
May 17: Alibi Breakfast
Trainers, jockeys and horse owners assemble to talk about the race (and, if the name is to be believed, perhaps lay the groundwork for some potential excuses). A tradition dating to the 1930s, for $50, you can be part of the audience, getting the inside scoop on what it's like to go for the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown. 9 a.m. in the Terrace Dining Room at Pimlico, 5201 Park Heights Ave. preakness.com/alibi-breakfast.
May 17: Lexington Market Crab Derby
Here's a tradition that, at least according to its organizers, is 14 years older than the Preakness (1859 vs. 1873). Yep, for more than a century and a half, the speediest of Maryland's favorite-son crustaceans have been competing to see which one has the fastest 10 legs in Baltimore, with the winner getting its name put on the famed Faidley/Devine Cup (or, more accurately, Faidley/Devine crab basket). Those who appreciate the art of speed skittering should gather at the market's south parking lot, 400 W. Lexington St., from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. There'll be food from Lexington Market vendors, music from Stryker's Posse, a family zone and VIP opportunities. Plus, of course, the race. We're tellin' ya, Usain Bolt's got nothing on this crowd. $8-$55, free for kids 16 and under, with paying adult. crabderby.com.
May 18: Black-Eyed Susan Stakes
Three-year-old fillies race for their share of Pimlico glory in this annual race, a mile-and-an-eighth that may not generate the excitement the Preakness does, but comes close — and with a lot less ballyhoo to contend with, not to mention fewer people. Tickets are $40-$385. The gates open at 9 a.m., with the race going off around 4:50 p.m. preakness.com.
May 19: Preakness-themed Family Fun Day
Let your kids share in Preakness Saturday's awesomeness by taking them to Power Plant Live, 34 Market Place, for a day of pony rides, inflatables, face painting and DIY crafts. There'll also be food and drink specials for adults at some restaurants, with kids under 12 eating free at Charm City Pizza, Leinenkugel's Beer Garden and MEX Restaurant with the purchase of an adult entree. Noon-4 p.m. (which should give everyone plenty of time to make it home for the race), benefiting Believe In Tomorrow Children's House At Johns Hopkins. Free entry, $5-$15 for activity wristbands. powerplantlive.com.