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Crab Derby can bring out contestants' darker side


THIS IS Preakness Week, and in keeping with tradition, the town is going slightly loony.

How else do you explain John "Kinderman" Taylor, that normally kindhearted children's entertainer, stalking my Sun colleague, Gregory Kane, with a crab hammer?

Or how do you account for Tarik Walker, the muscular forward of the Baltimore Blast soccer team, sounding like a hit man from The Godfather as he advocates "straight fear" as the way to get things done.

What other explanation could there be for the fact that some hooting members of the crowd gathered at the Arcade in Lexington Market to watch the 12th Annual Crab Derby would accuse little old me, a model of propriety, of cheating?

It is the lusty month of May, or, as the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner put it, "that lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray." After months of good behavior, we denizens of the Patapsco River basin start shedding clothes, inhibitions and common sense. The ultimate display of good-natured lunacy occurs today when thousands of well-lubricated horseplayers - some dressed to the nines, some half-naked - descend on the Pimlico Race Course for an afternoon of delirium highlighted by the running of The Preakness Stakes.

Forget about the reputation this town has as "Charm City." During Preakness Week, every race - even one in which live crabs scuttle across the floor of Lexington Market - becomes a no-holds-barred competition.

So it came as no surprise Thursday when the Kin- derman, the victor in last year's crab sprint, lost his preliminary race and began to threaten Kane, the heat winner, with a crab hammer. Only quick thinking by Koli Tengella, a stand-up comic who serves as master of ceremonies for the crab races, kept the scene from turning ugly. "Don't hate!" Tengella said, throwing Kinderman's usual lovey-dovey message back at him. "Put the hammer down."

Kinderman complied; perhaps this "bad boy" routine was only an act.

Walker, the soccer stud, is built like a brick crabhouse. He simply scared his crab over the finish line. He picked up the clear, plastic lid that kept the crab at the starting line and, once the race began, slammed the lid behind the crab on the ceramic tile floor. This created quite a racket and the terrified crab scooted.

Most of the other 17 contestants tried to coax their crabs to move by waving plastic balls in front of them or squirting them with water. But not Walker. "No lures, no squirts - just straight fear," the victor explained.

His closest competitor was WMAR's Tony Pagnotti. Some of us thought Pagnotti, a veteran of this crab competition, had suckered Walker, the rookie, into winning. As the first-place finisher, Walker got to make a donation of $500 to the charity of his choice, and a $100 gift certificate from Faidley's Seafood. By finishing second, Pagnotti picked up a bushel of crabs, a prize that, according to Bill Devine, proprietor of Faidley's, is worth about $200. You do the math.

As for the allegation that I cheated, I say "Nuh-uh!" It is true that I wanted to win very badly. It is also true that before the race I called around the country trying to get tips from winners of other crab races.

For instance, I called North Carolina, to pull Christine Mackey, director of tourism programs, out of a meeting in the department's conference room. In addition to conducting state business in that room, Mackey had also been admiring the gleaming trophy that resided there. She got the trophy for picking the crab that won last year's Hard Crab Derby in Crisfield, a race held every Labor Day weekend. When I asked Mackey for advice on how to pick a winner, she told me. "Pick a crab with a fighting spirit."

So I chose a crab with a " 'tude." It snapped at me during warm-ups and almost nicked John Richter, the veteran crab handler from Faidley's, as he prepared it for the race.

Once the race started, I waved at it with the red foam crab headdress that all contestants were issued. The headdress, I surmised, was supposed to show the contestants' solidarity with crustaceans. In fact, it made us all look like aliens. It certainly made my critter run for cover.

I attempted to employ a secret weapon, a bottle of vinegar. I sprinkled vinegar on my crab, figuring the aroma might trigger some inherited memory in my critter of a distant relative's journey to a steam kettle.

I only got to use the vinegar in the preliminary heat. The result - much to the dismay of some members of the crowd - was that my crab was the first to skedaddle across the finish line. But in the finals, against the crabs jockeyed by Walker, Pagnotti and Kane, trouble set in.

First of all, my once feisty crab suddenly became a couch potato. It wouldn't move, so I was about to "encourage it" by pulling out the vinegar once again. But Sam Ilardo, the grand overseer of the Lexington Market mores, and who at 82 has seen a fair amount of bad behavior in this town, told me to keep the bottle in my pocket.

Breaking out the vinegar in the finals would be cheating, Sam said, even in the relaxed moral climate known as Preakness Week.

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