Gravity-defying hats and seersucker suits; shadowy betting stands and thoroughbreds champing at the bit on their way to the starting line. The cheers, the big wins, the missed chances.
Pimlico, it’s good to be back.
Last year’s Preakness Stakes was postponed for the first time since World War II because of the pandemic, and when it was finally held in October, spectators for the most part weren’t allowed. This year will see limited capacity and COVID-19 protocols in place. But even with seats spaced six feet apart — and infield revelers cordoned off in four-person “pods”— the atmosphere is joyous, and the forecast miraculously clear.
This year feels even sweeter without the anxiety of a potential Laurel move that has hung over previous years. The Preakness will stay in Baltimore: Maryland lawmakers have unveiled a nearly $400 million plan to revamp the decrepit facility here and in Laurel. And boy, does Old Hilltop need help. The facade looks more Soviet Bloc than Triple Crown. Inside, every surface seems to be either cracked, peeling or both. Bathrooms, as usual, are out of order.
But warts and all, we absolutely love Preakness.
Since no sporting event is complete without food, I ate my way around Pimlico to sample nearly everything the grandstand has to offer, from crab cakes to pit beef. Consider me your snack time handicapper. Odds are, you’ll like one of these items.
Black-Eyed Susan ($15)… or a crush ($14)
Introduced in 1973, the Black-Eyed Susan has become the signature drink of Preakness, and especially for the eponymous fillies-only Black-Eyed Susan Stakes the day before. With a kitchen sink mix of bourbon, vodka, peach schnapps and juice, it’s not exactly everyone’s cup of … liqueur. Don’t feel bad about swapping it out for the more potable Ketel One Crush, which sees splashes of flavored vodka with cucumber and mint plus grapefruit and rose.
Crab cake sliders with chips ($20)
The crab cake sliders from Jimmy’s Famous Seafood are one of the Marylandest items you can order in the grandstand. Two mini cakes on buns are served with some tasty kettle chips. Though we might have liked some more chips on the side, the well-seasoned and sweet crab cakes — not too much filler — were definitely one of our favorite items.
Frozen custard ($5)
The frozen custard stand here from the Queen City Creamery at Pimlico bills the sweet treat as “ice cream’s better tasting cousin,” and their pistachio version lived up to that boast. The subtly flavored, super creamy dessert gets a welcome crunch from crispy roasted pistachios. $5 gets you a generous portion and one of the best deals at Old Hilltop.
Pit beef sandwich with bag of chips ($12)
Pit beef is a signature item in Baltimore, preferably sliced thin, charred on the outside and piled high. We would have liked to see a little more meat on the bun at this Pimlico stand, but appreciated the smoky flavor of the beef — even better with a big glob of horseradish on top.
Lobster roll ($16)
For those who love the refreshing taste of unadorned lobster, the lobster roll from this grandstand stall will do the trick. Don’t expect any sides, just hunks of sweet lobster with minimal dressing in a bread roll.
Chicken tenders with fries ($12)
The chicken tenders were one of the last snacks I scooped up on my binge through Pimlico’s offerings. In the aftermath of the crab cake and lobster roll bounty that preceded them, they left me underwhelmed (and in a food coma). The tenders themselves were slightly soggy. The fries tasted slightly stale and would have been seriously bland had we not poured them beneath a mountain of Old Bay.
Perhaps expecting off-the-chain chicken tenders at Preakness is a little like expecting gold-plated bathrooms in the decrepit grandstand. It’s not going to happen now. Perhaps with the new and improved future of Pimlico we can expect to see some Ekiben up in the place.