No Triple Crown winner this year, no first-female-jockey-to-win, no sunshine? No problem, said those who flocked to Pimlico Race Course on Saturday and waited out a midafternoon downpour to watch Oxbow leave behind Kentucky Derby winner Orb to capture the 138th Preakness Stakes.
"This is always an exciting race," said Tom Meek, 59, of Phoenixville, Pa., smoking a postrace cigar. "As much as I love Orb and as much as I want a Triple Crown, this is great for Oxbow. That horse rocked."
The cool, cloudy morning turned cold after showers, which sent the hatted and suited corporate village denizens ducking for cover under their white tents and the infielders scrounging for ponchos, garbage bags and other makeshift coverings. But the 117,203 Preakness-goers — the fourth-largest crowd in the race's history — generally didn't let the rain dampen the day.
"It's a tradition we look forward to every year," said Jeff Jones, 60, of State College, Pa., who with friends like Meek travels to Pimlico every year. "Life goes on but we always come back to the Preakness."
Jones, who is a self-described look-a-like of trainer Bob Baffert, and Meek were particularly thrilled that Oxbow's jockey, 50-year-old Gary Stevens, is closer to their age than most jockeys.
"We feel like the guys in 'Diner' or 'Tin Men' when we come down here," Meek said, referring to those classic Baltimore-set movies by Barry Levinson. " 'We're going to leave work and go to the track.' "
The fourth-place finish by Orb, a heavy favorite, validated Shirley Stalvey's hunch. The Jacksonville, Fla, resident, here on vacation and at her first Preakness, saw the long odds and bet on Oxbow.
"Why?" she asked rhetorically. "Nobody liked him, so I figured he would win."
As the horses thundered down the home stretch, a large crowd around Stalvey prevented her from seeing the finish. When she looked at the leader board and saw No. 6 flash in first place, she hooted, hollered and jumped up and down in her straw hat.
She won $60. But the day meant much, much more. "It's my 77th birthday," she exclaimed.
For some regulars, the Preakness has become an annual touchstone that is as much an opportunity to get together with friends and families as birthdays and anniversaries.
Back in 1991, Marty Alexa told his fiancee as she planned their wedding: Make it any day but May 19, Preakness Day.
But as fate and church availability would have it, that's when they had to schedule their wedding — and it remains the last time Alexa, 57, of Silver Spring remembers not making it to the second race in the Triple Crown. At least there's the benefit of knowing that every year, the Preakness and their anniversary fall around the same time.
"It's so Maryland," said Alexa, who strung tickets from Preaknesses past onto the straw hat he was wearing on Saturday. "It's just such a wonderful tradition that we started and continued over the years."
His wife Kerry, though, had to miss the race as she recovered from gallbladder surgery. Her ticket, and her similarly ticket-bedecked hat, went to their friend, Bill Yates, 65, also of Silver Spring.
For Metti Kanno, a local physician, the Preakness is an opportunity to socialize and dress up. She picked out her neon-green fascinator with great care, finding it online at the British store Hats by Cressida. This was her fourth Preakness and the first time she wasn't on call.
"I just like coming and being around all the diverse people," Kanno said. "It is a nice positive event for Baltimore."
Tory Leggio and Jrue Wolski normally attend the Kentucky Derby, but this year the college buddies had a wedding when the first Triple Crown race took place. So the 28-year-old men who live in Atlanta decided to sample the Preakness instead.
They noticed some differences right away — there wasn't as much pagentry at homey Old Hilltop as at Churchill Downs.
"But I am still having a hell of a time," Leggio said.
He and Wolski wore suits they had custom-made in China for the event — so colorful that they caught the attention of many, including racetrack staff who offered them free shots.
"If you're going to do horse racing," Leggio said, "don't take it too seriously."
The highest-wattage celebrities were found as usual at the tent of Under Armour and Sagamore Racing, both owned by Kevin Plank, the former University of Maryland football player who turned his idea for a better athletic undergarment into a billion-dollar enterprise. Athletes like Baltimore Raven Torrey Smith joined actor and Baltimore native Josh Charles and star chef Bobby Flay in the tent, located in prime finish-line real estate in Pimlico's corporate village.
Among the partiers was Bela Karolyi, the Olympics gymnastic coach who as it turns out has a second sporting passion — racehorses — that he sees in much the same light as his other charges.
"They are [both] powerful and elegant," said Karolyi, who raises horses on a 2,400-acre combination ranch and gymnastics camp in Texas. "They are altogether beautiful."
Also mingling in the tent were University of Maryland, College Park basketball coach Mark Turgeon and Towson University football coach Rob Ambrose, who remembered "doing the infield" once when he was a college student.
"It's certainly more enjoyable this way," he said.
Indeed, for many, a trip to the Preakness is a trip down memory lane.
"I went from the infield to the grandstand to the upper grandstand inside the glass to the clubhouse and now corporate village," said Michael A. Miller, a lawyer with the firm, Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver. "I guess you can call it my Preakness evolution."
Miller walked over to the infield, felt a wave of nostalgia for his first Preakness as a student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and then quickly got over it. "I felt old," the 35-year-old said with a laugh.
In the corporate tents, there was at least as much civic, business and political schmoozing as race-watching. Donald Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee business group, was squiring a group of people he wanted to attract to the area's growing cyber community. Having brought them to the Orioles game Friday night, Saturday was devoted to the Preakness.
"It's a great way to see people, see them in a different setting and enjoy one of Maryland's greatest traditions, the Preakness," Fry said. "There's no better way to highlight Maryland."
Gov. Martin O'Malley dropped by the corporate village but left before the race and the trophy-presenting ceremony that he traditionally handles. Instead, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a gubernatorial candidate, did the honors.
"It's my daughter's graduation from Georgetown — cum laude," O'Malley said of his eldest, Grace. "That doesn't happen every day."
The infield, notoriously rowdy when ticket-holders were allowed to bring in their own booze, continued on its tamer path this year.
Ryan Becker and Adam Meliker, both from Baltimore, reminisced about Preakness' wilder days as they pressed up against a chain link fence waiting for an early race to start. "I went in 2007 when it was a nut house," Becker said.
A chalk graffiti wall in the infield ended up mostly dominated by fraternities' Greek letters, but Natalie Abacherli, 25, added her own little sorority, RoCaJoNa — a mashup of her college friends' names.
That done, her plan for the rest of the day was simple.
"Drink!" she said, raising her glass of Bud Light in salute.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts was in the infield keeping an eye on the crowds swelling around Pitbull's performance. He wanted to make sure people could be evacuated safely if there was a surge toward the stage, he said.
The department has been especially wary since the Boston marathon bombings, he said, and scheduled more officers to work at the race than usual. "We're paying attention to bags," Batts added.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said after the race that three men were arrested for disorderly conduct, and 23 minor medical calls were reported.
The revelry extended into the parking lots and surrounding neigborhoods. Rocky Fox, 33, attending his fifth Preakness, packed into a rented van with about a dozen friends.
The group would have preferred to bring their own alcohol, but said that wouldn't stop them from drinking at the track. Fox said he expected extra security and could deal with that as well.
"I am just happy to be here and have a good time," Fox said.
Outside the track, many neighborhood residents became entrepreneurs for the day. They turned lawns into makeshift parking lots, waving signs on Northern Parkway and other major roads to draw in drivers. Kids hawked bottled water for a little spending money, and women tempted passersby with hot dogs and baked goods.
"It's a victimless hustle," said Shaquan Hopkins, who makes $300 to $400 selling parking spots on his aunt's lawn on Manhattan Avene. He waved a cardboard sign advertising the $20 spots and yelled "Need parking?" to cars, bicylists and anyone else coming by.
Robin Dickson brought her 13-year-old son to sell bottled water from the roadside because he wanted to make some money for a school trip to Chicago. But he disappeared around 12:30 p.m.and left an irritated mom to man the sales.