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INFIELD OF SCREAMS Oh, The Sights You'll see On Preakness Day


Is it me, or do the Preakness infield rules seem to get more and more picky each year? No bottles. No ropes. No grills. No kegs. No sofas. No scaffolds. No scaffolds?!

Tell me, what kind of a country do we live in where you can't even bring a few dozen lengths of hollow pipe and board to a horse race to construct a flimsy, 30-foot viewing platform for you and your beer-drinking buddies? What is this, Cuba? But rules are rules, I guess. So no scaffolds.

Of course, if you wheel in one of those big John Deere bulldozers and crank the bucket as high as she goes and climb inside with a cooler, why, I don't see how that would hurt any . . . no. On second thought, better check with the Pimlico security people to see where they stand on heavy-duty earth-moving equipment.

There are those who have a stark vision of the Preakness infield in the 21st century. They see guard towers with machine-gun emplacements looming above the crowd. They see a 15-foot-high cyclone fence topped with concertina wire ringing the perimeter. They see two-man foot patrols accompanied by snarling German shepherds circling everywhere.

I myself am not nearly as cynical about the infield's fate, believing that everyone's right to a good time can be maintained simply through the use of high-pressure hoses and tear gas. I think I'm only kidding, although when you shoe-horn 60,000 people onto a few acres of grass for what amounts to an all-day cocktail party, the place does take on all the calm of a bazaar in Tangier.

The Preakness infield is something you have to experience for yourself to truly appreciate. I have seen it up-close and personal a half-dozen times now, and each time I've felt like a sociologist stumbling upon some long-lost civilization -- a latter-day Gomorrah with Spot-o-Pots and Frisbees flying through the air and Guns N' Roses blaring from hundreds of boom boxes.

The tribal rites here are obvious. Beer-drinking. Flirting. Varying degrees of nudity. An insatiable appetite for fried foods. An ability to ignore the elements -- although this stoicism seems to increase in direct proportion to the number of beers consumed. Occasionally, infield patrons will even glance over at the races, but this is clearly not a crowd hanging on every blink of the tote board.

The Preakness Stakes might be the middle jewel of racing's fabled Triple Crown, but for the infield patrons, it's more like a marathon happy hour minus the Buffalo wings.

Here and there in the infield, small outposts of civility dot the landscape. Wandering through the masses a few years ago, I happened upon an elegant-looking woman serving meatballs and asparagus in silver chafing dishes.

On one side of her, a bare-chested young man was chugging a 16-ounce Schlitz tall-boy while a dozen of his friends hooted and chanted: "Drink! Drink! Drink!"

On the other side, a large bearded biker and his girlfriend were entwined in a feverish embrace (complete with grunts and groans) that had long since passed R-rated.

And here was this woman delicately spooning vegetables onto a plate and saying: "Well, it's a very light hollandaise. Not like Peg makes. I only used a half-stick of butter. . . . "

The infield crowd has always been this bizarre mix of working men and women, sorority girls, gigolos, hippies, aging prepsters, ex-cons, punkers and college lacrosse studs.

On my first visit to the infield in 1982, I encountered yet another element. I was a sportswriter -- pencil and note pad in hand -- in search of a column back then. Making my way through a battalion of drunk college students hoisting signs urging young women to "Show Us Your T---!", I might as well have been wearing a fedora with a press card tucked in the brim.

Suddenly I came across a large, semi-naked man seated on a lawn chair. He was wearing a cowboy hat. Across his chest was a huge tattoo of a ferocious-looking panther. Both arms were also covered with an impressive collection of tattoos: a heart with a dagger stuck in it, a dragon, the names of various women. (Molly was one, I remember that. It must have been a memorable scene, Molly bringing this guy home to meet Mom.)

Seeing me approach, he smiled and fished a Budweiser from a cooler at his feet and said: "Here, chief. You look like you could use it."

He said his name was Dexter. We got to talking about his tattoos and I asked if I could use his last name in my story.

He frowned thoughtfully and was quiet for perhaps 10 seconds.

"Might not be a good idea," he said at last. "See, there's an arrest warrant out for me. They think I held up a 7-Eleven in Anne Arundel County."

"Oh?" I said, glancing about. There's never a cop around when you need one.

"But I didn't do it," Dexter continued. "Me and my boys was miles away from there. Besides, I jes' got out the penitentiary. Why would I do something stupid like that? 'Course, try telling that to the po-leece."

"Yes," I said. "Well, uh, Dexter -- I mean Mr. Dexter -- I really should be going now. See, I have to talk to lots of . . . "

"You have a nice day now," Dexter said pleasantly.

After hurrying away and glancing over my shoulder once or twice to make sure I wasn't being followed, I realized that what Dexter had done made perfect sense.

Think about it: Man on the run from the law attends the Preakness and is swallowed up by the infield, never to be heard from again.

My God, it was a brilliant move! Better even than joining the Cleveland Indians.

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