As horses congregate, the city celebrates

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's post time! And not just for horses. Starting tomorrow there'll be hot-air balloons soaring into the skies, schooners racing across the harbor, runners dashing through city neighborhoods and booming bands marching in a parade.

Add to that a celebrity crab-picking contest, hobbyhorse races for the wee ones, outdoor concerts and block parties, and you have the 13th annual Preakness Celebration. The eight-day pep rally is jammed with more than two dozen events designed to lead you to the starting gate of the 126th running of the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown challenge.

For the first time, admission is free to all but one of the events.

"We work year-round to raise funds to stage these events. Our efforts this year paid off as the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and our sponsors combined to help underwrite the festivities so that they can be free," says Terry Romanoli, Preakness Celebration executive director. "Not everyone may be able to attend the Preakness Stakes, but everybody can participate in the activities that precede them. ... The celebration is as much for residents as it is for visitors."

Come Saturday, thousands of spectators (residents and visitors alike) will be vying for prime spots along the parade route on Pratt Street to cheer close to 100 precision marching units, drill teams, equestrian units, floats and giant helium balloons.

The 28th annual Preakness Parade, organized by the Baltimore Office of Promotions, will be led by the Baltimore Marching Ravens along with grand marshal Brian Billick, head coach of the Super Bowl XXXV champions, the Baltimore Ravens. University of Maryland head basketball coach Gary Williams and some of his players will also be in the parade lineup. (For the first time in their history, the Terps this year played in the NCAA Final Four.)

Many longtime favorites will be returning to the parade, including the Baltimore Westsiders, a community band that's been part of every Preakness Parade since its inception in 1972. Also look for the ever-popular Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and Giddy Up, the mascot of the Preakness Celebration.

Giant helium-filled balloons have become a major parade attraction, and this year spectators are in for a treat. The Wizard, 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide, makes his debut in Baltimore. Dressed in a long purple robe, the Wizard will extend his giant arms to greet parade watchers.

"It will take 30 to 40 minutes and 1,700 cubic feet of helium to inflate the Wizard," says Linda Johnson, marketing director for Big Events, suppliers of the parade's giant balloons. She adds that at least 16 handlers are needed to hold the Wizard's ropes and guide him along the parade route.

"They'll be instructed in doing the limbo under electric wires and how to watch out for street lights and other obstructions," says Johnson. "In all, there will be five giant helium balloons in this year's parade, including a rocking horse, a football and a basketball."

Before watching helium balloons being maneuvered along Pratt Street Saturday, why not head for Druid Hill Park, where colorful hot-air balloons will be lifting into the skies? But you have to rise early to catch the action. Pilots will fire up at 6 a.m. for the "Hare and Hound" competition, a Balloon Federation of America-sanctioned race where qualifying points can be earned for national and world championships.

In the race, a pack of balloons - the hounds - chases after a single balloon - the hare - in an attempt to toss a beanbag as close as possible to a marker set on the ground by the hare.

The race is part of the annual Preakness Balloon Festival, which features balloon ascensions tomorrow through Sunday at Oregon Ridge and Druid Hill parks.

"Approximately 20 balloons in a variety of shapes and coming from as far away as Texas and Arizona will participate," says Dan Sherrill, who has been organizing Preakness balloon festivals for the past 11 years and owns American Balloon Corp. of Austin, Texas.

Ian Foy of Towson has been flying his hot-air balloon, Gypsy Rover, in the festival since the mid-1980s, when he still lived in New Jersey. "I wouldn't miss it; it's a great deal of fun. A lot of the same balloonists return year after year, and there's a great camaraderie," says Foy. "I've been flying in festivals that attract over 200 balloons, and that's too impersonal."

Foy will also participate in the BalloonGlow at dusk Saturday as part of the finale of a concert that starts at 2 p.m. at Oregon Ridge Park and features O'Malley's March, Rumba Club, Carl Filipiak, the Kennedys and Cubic Feet.

"The BalloonGlow is spectacular," says Sherrill. "Balloons are fully inflated while staying aground, and burners are turned on simultaneously to light up the sky."

This year, unlike in previous ones, the BalloonGlow and concert are free of charge.

The only event requiring a fee is the Cosamin Preakness 5-K Digital Harbor Dash. Formerly the 5-K Preakness Run, the race has a new name and route to coincide with Baltimore's efforts to line its harbor with high-tech companies, says race director Dave Cooley. Close to 1,000 runners are expected to meet at the Can Company on Boston Street in Canton Saturday morning for a race that takes them through Canton and Fells Point. The entry fee is $20 in advance and $25 on race day.

Saturday is packed with races, balloon ascensions, the parade and a concert, but there's plenty else to keep you busy on other days. Starting Monday evening and continuing through Friday, professional jockeys will bartend for charity at the Cointreau Preakness Pub at Mother's Federal Hill Grille on South Charles Street.

And don't miss Miller Lite Nites Wednesday through May 18 at Power Plant Live on Market Place. Musical entertainment by local, regional and national bands and a happy-hour atmosphere are featured nightly.

"And you won't go hungry - there are plenty of food vendors," says Don Wehner, organizer of the outdoor concerts and president of Upfront Promotions. He adds that the concerts are open to all ages, with proper identification required for alcohol consumption.

Adding to the Preakness excitement are the Mount Gay Rum Schooner Races across the Inner Harbor May 17. And preceding that event will be the first Preakness Sea Monster Stakes. Coached by members of the Living Classroom Foundation, middle-school children will compete for prizes in a "Sea Monster" paddleboat race.

In its 13-year history, the Preakness Celebration has grown from a modest effort to celebrate a horse race to a monumental event that attracts a quarter of a million people and raises more than $54 million, says its executive director, Terry Romanoli.

"Once the dust settles on the Kentucky Derby, the attention shifts to Baltimore and the Preakness," she says. "What better way [than the celebration] to showcase our city?"

Preakness Celebration events

All events are free, except the Cosamin Preakness 5-K Digital Harbor Dash. For more information, call 410-837-3030 or visit the Web site at www.preaknesscelebration.org.

Tomorrow

BB&T; Hot Air Balloon Festival, 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., Oregon Ridge Park

Saturday

BB&T; Hot Air Balloon Festival, 6 a.m., Druid Hill Park

Cosamin Preakness 5-K Digital Harbor Dash. 9 a.m. starting from the Can Company, Boston Street, Canton. $20 advance, $25 race day.

Cingular Wireless Preakness Parade, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. along Pratt Street, between Eutaw Street and Market Place

BalloonGlow and concert, 2 p.m.-9 p.m. Oregon Ridge Park. A day of entertainment by local bands. Dozens of hot-air balloons provide a glowing backdrop beginning at dusk.

Sunday

BB&T; Hot Air Balloon Festival, 6 a.m., Oregon Ridge Park

Monday

Cointreau Preakness Pub, 5 p.m.-8 p.m., Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles St. Jockeys tend bar for charity.

Phillips Harborplace Preakness Trayfecta. Waiters and waitresses compete in an obstacle course. Noon-1 p.m., Harborplace Amphitheatre

Tuesday

Pee Wee Preakness. Schoolchildren race on hobby horses. 11:30 a.m., Federal Hill Park

Cointreau Preakness Pub. 5 p.m.-8 p.m., Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles St.

Wednesday

Flower Mart, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Mount Vernon Square. Rain date May 17

Lee's Ice Cream Banana Split Stakes, noon, Harborplace Amphitheatre

Preakness Frog Hop, noon, Pulaski Monument, Patterson Park

Cointreau Preakness Pub, 5 p.m.-8 p.m., Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles St.

Miller Lite Nites. Mr. Greengenes and Intensive Care Unit. 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Power Plant Live, Market Place

May 17

Preakness Crab Derby, 12:30 p.m., Lexington Market

Preakness Sea Monster Stakes. Kids paddle through Inner Harbor. 3 p.m., Harborplace

Mount Gay Rum Schooner Race. Tall ships compete from Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry and back. 5 p.m.-7 p.m.

Cointreau Preakness Pub, 5 p.m.-8 p.m., Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles St.

Miller Lite Nites. Econoline Crush and Cold open for Buckcherry. 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Power Plant Live, Market Place

May 18

Phillips Preakness Celebrity Crab Picking Contest, noon-1 p.m., Harborplace Amphitheatre

Cointreau Preakness Pub, 5 p.m.-8 p.m., Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles St.

Miller Lite Nites. Three Prong Outlet opens for Rhumba Club and Lake Trout. 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Power Plant Live, Market Place

May 19

126th running of the Preakness Stakes. Gates open 8:30 a.m., first post 10:45 a.m., Preakness Stakes 5:30 p.m., Pimlico Race Course

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