To understand the fantastic and formless phenomenon that is the Preakness, you have but one option today. You have to put your hands on it. You have to go to the racetrack.

You have to sit in the killer traffic jam on Northern Parkway, get sunburned before noon and feel your shoes crunching the flinty grit covering battered old Pimlico.

You have to smell the hay and horseflesh in the barns, ride a foolish hunch early in the day -- maybe bet your birthday in the third race -- and monitor the steady and improbable gathering of kings and serfs in the same thrall.

You have to spend all day wondering if Lil E. Tee will prove a champion real or imagined today in the 117th running of the race, with 80,000 fans expected and a spate of sprint-speed contenders, such as Alydeed and Speakerphone, ready to challenge.

You have to cough on cigarette smoke and gulp warm drink, read the fine print of a wind-wrinkled Racing Form, listen to a lot of bad advice and, in the end, experience the palpable, murmuring tension that suddenly swallows the place in the late-afternoon hour leading up to the race.

Oh, and that nails-on-the-blackboard, two-minute shriek that is the race. You have to hear it.

Television simply does not do it justice. A Preakness in your living room is just another offering from the television beast, empty of the texture that measures it.

Only in person can you feel Dance Floor's breeze as he takes the lead right in front of you rounding the first turn . . .

. . . and feel the jolt in your toes when Casual Lies' number goes to the top of the tote board when they're at the far turn, where you can't see . . .

. . . and hear your beer-belly neighbor bellowing as Lil E. Tee and Conte Di Savoya make a stretch run together . . .

Only in person can you comprehend the essence of the day: The Preakness is more than a little nuts and impossible to slay with a single definition, but it is as big as big gets in this town, and, most important, it is ours.

You can understand it wearing a thousand-dollar suit in a corporate tent or almost no clothes at all in the infield, just as long as you are there -- the Preakness is not a borrowed experience.

It is not someone else's point of light, like the Redskins. It is not a built-for-TV event delivered between commercials from Minneapolis. It did not leave, like the Colts.

It might mean a dozen different things to a dozen different people, but there is this essential element: The Preakness is set down right where you live, where you can put your hands on it, and, along with the script of "Diner" and the Dunbar Poets and Johns Hopkins Hospital, to mention a few, it is one of those items you can point to and say: "That's our best, and, yeah, it's pretty good."

LTC It takes place in a neighborhood worn to the nubbins from drugs and gunfire, but at a time when the city offers a beautiful backdrop, the secret that is Baltimore in May, with short-sleeve weather and bright swipes of red and pink azaleas gone mad everywhere.

It is a user-friendly event, with all the horses and trainers and jockeys crammed into one barn on the backside, forced to smile and talk and share space all week. "A special situation," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "Many of the friends I've made in racing, I've made at the Preakness."

It is not quite as major an event as we make it, neither the outsized beginning of the Triple Crown that is the Kentucky.

Derby nor the occasional coronation that is the Belmont. But it almost always has a hook. The Derby winner comes to town and everyone takes a run at him, and we see if he has Triple Crown stuff.

Usually, he does not. The Preakness is more about exploding myths than making them. Who, other than the junkies, remembers last year's winner? But the phenomenon of the Preakness is that it thrives as a disposable event with temporary allegiances.

Something worth a memory chip tends to happen. Cordero's ride on Codex in 1980. Deputed Testamony taking the trophy back to Harford County in 1983. Forty Niner bumping Winning Colors around two turns in 1988. Easy Goer and Sunday Silence coming down the stretch in 1989.

Funny, huh, that we take it all for granted, although how could we not after 116 runnings? But, on the sporting time line, see, there are only a couple of places that get a yearly guarantee. There is the Masters in Augusta and the 500 in Indy. There is the Derby in Louisville.

And there is Baltimore. A dozen different meanings to a dozen different people. The new ballpark at Camden Yards casts a telling light, illuminating the Preakness as the shapeless sprawl it is. The ballpark's significance is easily defined. It is a new home for the home team, the beginning of an era. What is the Preakness? Not so easy.

To the serious player, the guy eating into his mortgage every day at the track, it is just a crowd. A longer line at the betting window.

To the exploding crazies in the infield, it is a reason to open beer cans with their teeth. They won't see a horse.

To the people in the corporate tents, it is linen tablecloths in the mud, a touch of odd elegance.

To the trainers and jockeys and grooms and hot walkers along the shed rows, it is the next best thing to winning the Kentucky Derby.

To anyone remembering the snowy night the Colts left, it is a chance to appreciate just being able to put your hands on something.

A dozen different things to a dozen different people, but, to all, a classic Baltimore experience: a neighborhood gig, spit-shined only in places, strong on tradition, something to hold in your hands. Hold along with those betting tickets you tear up.

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