The largest crowd in Preakness Stakes history watched the thrilling victory of a horse that's now on a Triple Crown hunt, jammed to pop band Maroon 5 and basked under a Saturday sky whose only clouds were the wispy letters of an advertisement sprayed from a plane.
Bettors in the Turfside Terrace, a massive white tent along the home stretch at Pimlico Race Course, watched anxiously as the 137th Preakness ended just as many had predicted — with Derby champ I'll Have Another and also-favored Bodemeister vying for the win. When I'll Have Another surged late to win by a nose — and continued his bid for what would be the first Triple Crown triumph since 1978 — they erupted into cheers, clutching their betting tickets and hugging.
"It's so much fun," said Mike Joy of Exton, Pa., the biggest winner at his table, hauling in $105. "This is my first horse race. It's been more fun than I could ever have imagined."
The sentiment is something politicians and horse racing industry leaders have been eager to hear.
Horse racing officials said the record crowd demonstrated the success of changes made in recent years to stem flagging interest in the sport: instituting an all-you-can-drink deal, stepping up entertainment options and using slot machine gambling revenue to improve race tracks. The record crowd of 121,300 came in the fourth year of a new twist on Preakness, an end to a bring-your-own-beer infield policy that garnered a less than flattering reputation.
"The numbers say it all. We had a tremendous event," Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said in a statement. "We knew in 2009 when we changed the landscape of the infield it would take three or four years to get to where we needed to get, and we are back."
The record crowd surpassed 2007 attendance by less than 100 people. It completed a rebound in Preakness attendance, which fell by a third in 2009 to 78,000 but grew to 107,000 by last year. The handle was $80,463,005 — the sixth-highest betting pool in Preakness history.
While the infield fest was still beer-soaked, a crowd that has developed a reputation for being rowdy was relatively peaceful. Nine people were ejected from Pimlico and one arrested for unruly behavior.
"Now, it's built back to an event the city can be proud of hosting," city police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said during a patrol through Pimlico. "Everyone is happy. People are well-behaved and having a great time."
Saturday morning, the revelry started early, to be sure.
At 9:30 a.m., Debbie Reed, 45, of Sterling, Va., danced as the band Mr. Greengenes played a version of the Oasis song, "Don't Look Back in Anger."
"This is my first of many," she said, pointing to the beer in her hand. Lines snaked around the lawn chairs Saturday morning as partiers waited half an hour or more for neon yellow mugs that, for $20, they could refill an unlimited number of times.
The good times weren't limited to the infield. Tom Bogovich led a group of 10 men from Pennsylvania coal country, having made the trip with his buddies every year since 1994. They stay in the Hampton Inn downtown and have a hotel van shuttle them to Pimlico. They pored over the Preakness program before each race, making their bets and watching the horses gallop by from trackside tables under a tent.
"We do some betting, some partying," said Dan Rupp, a member of the crew from Mount Carmel, Pa. "I'd say a lot of betting and a lot of partying."
His bet paid off: Rupp picked both I'll Have Another and Bodemeister to finish among the top four.
As always, there were those who had no interest in horse racing.
"I'm in it for the experience," said Megan Yardchik, a Federal Hill resident attending her third straight Preakness and sporting a wide-brimmed, gold-and-white-striped straw hat. Yardchik and friends Leah Rogan and Matthew Egan staked out a spot near a massive, dome-shaped Jagermeister tent in the middle of the infield, mostly indifferent to the horses circling them but eager for the chance to win money by betting on them.
Paige Tanner of Lancaster, Pa., celebrated both Preakness and an end to her life as a single woman. The 24-year-old, whose wedding is set for July, reunited with girlfriends from Elizabethtown College for a bachelorette party at Pimlico.
Her bridal tiara and garter drew attention from the infield crowds, she said.
"I've had two or three people take the garter off with their teeth," said Tanner, whose friends were all dressed in pink.
But despite the party atmosphere, some said it was kept within respectable bounds.
A grid of caution tape outlined various groups' turf at the top of the homestretch early in the day, much as Canton resident Justin Heinlein remembered it from the old BYOB days. While some partiers would be weighed down with coolers full of beer, others would run ahead to stake out spots, Heinlein recalled.
But unlike those days, nobody was passed out drunk at 11 a.m. on the grass, he said. He found the atmosphere superior to both the old days and the first few years of the BYOB ban.
"It's a lot better now," Heinlein said. "You can't beat it for 70 bucks" (the advance price for admission plus unlimited beer).
It was a second straight year the crowd didn't require significant control by police. Last year, no arrests were made and 23 people were ejected from Pimlico. In previous years, police activity made headlines, such as in 2002 when police were videotaped hitting a spectator with a baton during a melee in the raucous infield. In 1999, a drunken fan scaled the infield fence and took a swing at a horse favored to win the marquee Preakness race.
Maroon 5's appearance helped contribute to the classier infield atmosphere. As the band opened with its latest single, "Payphone," young spectators who paid hundreds of dollars for seats under a tent along the homestretch poured into the main infield area to sing along. Hip-hop star Wiz Khalifa also headlined.
Twenty-year-old twins Kyla and Keegan Cytryn of Allentown, N.J., stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of Adam Levine, the lead singer of Maroon 5, from the grass beside the outdoor stage. The tattooed crooner has a strong female following.
"It's amazing," Kyla Cytryn said. "I wish I could touch him, but this is as close as I can get."
Over in the VIP tents, city and state politicians rubbed elbows with Kevin Spacey, the Hollywood star in town filming the Netflix series "House of Cards," and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native. Gov. Martin O'Malley, in a dark suit and sunglasses, chatted with Spacey in the state-sponsored VIP tent, while Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake posed for pictures with Pelosi and admired jewelry for sale with her daughter, Sophia.
Packed inside the VIP tents were many of the same politicians who supported legalizing slots, in part for the sake of Preakness, in 2008.
Two slot machine parlors opened so far have raised $23 million for the racing industry. That has meant $3.6 million more for the Maryland Jockey Club's day-to-day operations for racetrack improvements, as well as more money for race purses.
"It's very evident that some of our lottery money is beginning to pay off," said Annapolis resident Jennifer Wilson, admiring the track and grandstand from a table under an infield tent. "It puts the city on the map in a good light, for once."
O'Malley said the best may be yet to come, once three more planned slots parlors open, although those sites have faced setbacks. Maryland Live, a casino at Arundel Mills mall, is slated to open next month. The governor is also considering calling a special session of the General Assembly dedicated to gambling issues, including whether to allow a sixth parlor and to legalize table games.
"It's been somewhat of a help," O'Malley said as he toured the Pimlico stables Saturday afternoon. "It can be a bigger help as it is fully implemented."
It was a day of celebration for Rick de los Reyes of Gambrills, who fanned his $420 winnings as his wife, Dani, snapped a photo. De los Reyes bet $100 on I'll Have Another to win. It was a much better result for de los Reyes than Preakness 2011, when his horse finished dead last.
"They should have a prize for picking the loser," Dani de los Reyes said.
Ryan Krempel, a 25-year-old from Fallston, lost a $20 bet on Bodemeister but wasn't broken up over it. He was simply entertained by the thrilling finish.
"It was a good race," he said. "It came right down to the end. It doesn't get better than that."