The slow descent into depravity began yesterday with the piercing howl of James Brown over a neighborhood loudspeaker at 8: 37 a.m., spread with the giddy drunkenness of bands of college boys at 10: 01 a.m. and culminated at two minutes to noon when a young woman, hoisted on a man's shoulders, peeled off her black bikini top to the deafening roar of hundreds of men.
And so the annual bawdy ritual was re-enacted among tens of thousands of spectators squeezed into the infield of Pimlico Race Course, home of the 123rd Preakness.
"God, family, then the Preakness!" said Robert Morningstar, 34, of Essex, who says he has missed Baltimore's biggest sporting event only once since 1978.
To display his fealty for the Preakness, Morningstar wore a specially designed Orioles baseball helmet: He imbibed beer by sucking a tube that ran through a pink plastic horse on the top of his hat and into a cup fixed to the visor. By blowing into the tube, he instantly unfurled three signs:
"123rd Preakness," read one.
"The horse needs a beer!"
There was enough to go around.
Moments after the gates opened at 8: 30, a caravan of men and women in various stages of disrobe poured in, a horde of college students and Generation Xers with buzz cuts, body piercings and tattoos, carrying lawn chairs, coolers, cases of beer and blankets.
"You see these people going in intact?" said police officer Valerie Price, monitoring the procession behind opaque sunglasses, her 12th Preakness. "When they leave, they won't be intact."
By day's end, the infield crowd would buy an estimated 5,000 beers, 5,000 sodas, 10,000 hamburgers, 8,000 hot dogs and 3,000 cigars. "It's a mess," kidded Bill Ryan, owner of O'Brien Food Service in Crofton, which provided food concessions for the infield.
"You get 100,000 people together with alcohol, and it just doesn't mix," said Ken Baker, an emergency medical technician with arms crossed, eyes scanning the crowd.
Few, if any, in the sweltering infield even realized that Pimlico had been struck by a power outage.
Case in point: Jeff Runyon, a lanky 21-year-old clutching a Miller Lite. Said the Montgomery County college student, "I started drinking at about 6 o'clock, and I'm drunk as a skunk. You haven't partied until you've been to the Preakness."
A moment after he ran off, screaming indiscriminately, a passer-by put a hand to her forehead and mumbled, "It's too early for this." It was 10: 01 a.m.
Already, the infield was a carnival of exposed flesh, posers and players, picnics, suntan lotion, Port-o-Let bathrooms, concession stands for pretzels, lemonade, Budweiser and expensive cigars, giant television screens and souvenir shops. Atop a betting booth, military police officers observed the action below through binoculars.
It included Vinnie Leonard, 34, of Philadelphia. Leonard, at his 11th Preakness, planned his vacation trip to Baltimore last October. His compatriots arrived shortly after 9 a.m. as the "advance crew" to stake out territory. As for the actual race, he said, "I don't bet."
Leonard was not the only spectator who seemed less interested in betting.
Pam Lazzaro, a 25-year-old Middle River resident, and her friend, Jodi Smith, 26, of Bel Air, reclined in lawn chairs, basking in the sun and periodic gulps of alcohol.
"Pretty relaxing," Lazzaro said.
"I didn't even know," Smith said, "they had started racing."
Pub Date: 5/17/98