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At Pimlico, horses are the star attraction. But behind the scenes on Preakness Day, people provide the show. Here's a 12-hour look.

On almost any other racing day, Pimlico Race Course is a comfortable, quiet spot to watch the horses. No hassle, no lines, small crowds and good people.

But on Preakness Saturday each year, more than 100,000 people make the trek up Northern Parkway, and cultures clash in a tornado of celebration and sin.

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It begins well before sunrise, and doesn't truly end until the last debutante has climbed into her Mercedes, and the last piece of trash has been scooped from the infield grass the next day. It may be one of the last places in America where drunks and degenerate gamblers can comfortably rub shoulders with politicians and philanthropists, and where the hard work of countless dedicated people provides a backdrop for college kids to pass out in public.

The Preakness is many things to many people and a truly unique event to the city of Baltimore. We offer you a chance to take a peek, now, at 12 hours in the life of Pimlico on Preakness Day, as well as some of the colorful personalities that make the event as special as it is surreal.

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7:49 a.m.: Outside the gates, thousands of people (mostly with infield passes) are already lined up, waiting for Pimlico to open. Most are sober, but some started drinking before sunrise, and are already drunk, or well on their way. Cheap beer - mostly Bud Lite, Miller Lite and Busch Light - is the beverage of choice, and it's carried in by the case, in backpacks, on shoulders and in children's inflatable swimming pools. Guys shout, girls laugh and couples flirt while a small army of police officers and hired security keeps close watch. An infield ticket this year costs $50.

8:17 a.m.: As the line of people files into the racetrack (at a pace so slow, it's practically glacial), teenage boys from the nearby neighborhoods mill through the crowd, pushing rusty shopping carts.

For $5, anyone can rent a cart, then have their cases of beer transported to the front gate. It's a long walk from most people's parking space - one that feels even longer when you're struggling to carry a 24-pack of Natty Boh - but it's only 59 degrees, so most of the line seems uninterested. Just off Northern Parkway, a woman stands on her front lawn, holding up a cardboard sign that reads: "Parking, All Day, $60."

8:41 a.m.: A tall, thick, African-American man on Pimlico Avenue won't give a reporter his name, but he says he knows exactly what's wrong with horse racing today, and says the media is afraid to write about it.

"There are no black jockeys or black trainers anymore," he says, pointing a crooked finger into the air. "It's a disgrace."

9:01 a.m.: Inside the grandstand, the betting windows, for the most part, are empty. Behind steel bars, gray-haired women lick their fingers and count stacks of $20 bills. Greg Little - a Baltimore man who says he is here for his 20th consecutive Preakness - is one of the few people at one of the windows. He cashes in his tickets from Friday and prepares to make all his bets for the day, 13 races. Look out for Sweetnorthernsaint in the Preakness, he says.

"I do all my handicapping the night before," he says. "I like to get in early and avoid the lines. I'll probably bet between $500 and $600 for the day."

Little, a Ravens fan who sips his beer from a purple Ravens beer coozy, says he and his brother are in their third year of attending all three legs of the Triple Crown. Baltimore, he reluctantly admits, is not his favorite.

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"You go to Churchill Downs, and everyone is so nice and the people are so well-dressed," Little says. "You come here, and it's a bit of a letdown."

10:05 a.m.: Midshipman 1st Class Colin Chandler, a senior at Annapolis and member of the Naval Academy Glee Club, sings the national anthem in a deep baritone. Chandler, who grew up in the San Francisco area, says he joined the Navy because he wanted to become a pilot, and now he's extremely close to his goal. In a few weeks, he'll head off to flight school in Florida, eager to serve his country.

"I'll be happy doing whatever it is they tell me," Chandler says. "Helicopters, jets, anything."

Music has always been a part of Chandler's life. He plays the trombone, the piano, and was a member of a jazz band. This is the first time, however, he has sung the national anthem solo in front of a big crowd.

"I think it's impossible not to get a little nervous," he says. "I did it before the Emerald Bowl, but that was with someone else."

10:37 a.m.: A.R. "Rosie" Napravnik, an 18-year-old redhead with sleepy eyes and a pale complexion, grabs the first race of the day, riding Roth Ticket to an easy victory. Napravnik, who grew up in New Jersey and lives in Laurel, is one of only two female jockeys on the card, but she's one of the best, regardless of gender. This is her first victory of the day, but not her last. She'll also win the prestigious fifth race, the Baltimore Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, riding My Lord to a commanding win.

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"I was born into this," Napravnik says. "I started pony racing when I was 7, and I was hooked. My sister was a trainer, so I kind of followed in her footsteps."

As for being one of the few women out here, Napravnik sees it as an advantage.

"I think it helps me in this business," she says. "If you've got a horse that needs you to be a little lighter on the lash, you can put a girl on him. Plus, I love kicking the boys' butts."

11:39 a.m.: It's not easy negotiating the crowds of Pimlico wearing a crown, a gold sash, a skintight dress and 4-inch stiletto heels, but Miss Preakness 2006 seems to be pulling it off with as much grace as the situation will allow. That's surprising, considering that Cheryl Gill, 23, a Towson senior who is about to graduate with a degree in exercise science, calls herself a tomboy at heart.

"My parents always said I was the perfect combination of sunshine and adrenaline," says Gill, who grew up in Harford County. "I grew up playing boys sports. I love sports cars and motorcycles. I still have a Honda CRF 230F dirt bike that I just love to get out and ride.

"There's nothing like it."

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Gill - who is starting an exercise program at Joppatowne High School next year titled "Fit, Not Thin," which hopes to encourage young girls and build their self-esteem - says she never envisioned herself competing in pageants. But it seemed like a good way to pay for college once she got to Towson. In June, she'll compete to be named Miss Maryland.

"Keep your fingers crossed," she says.

12:43 p.m.: On the beat-up leather couch inside the Pimlico jockeys' room, Dane Kobiske is trying to take a nap. But no matter how many times he closes his eyes, it's simply not happening. The reason? He's freezing.

"Us jockeys are always cold," says Kobiske, a 27-year-old apprentice jockey from Kansas who just started riding last June. "I think it's because we're so light."

Kobiske, who wrapped himself tightly in a green wool blanket, was supposed to ride in three races on Preakness Day, but two of his horses were scratched. That left him sitting around for hours, waiting for the last race of the day.

"If my horse wasn't favored in that race, I don't think you'd see me sticking around all day," Kobiske said jokingly. "But it's a cool atmosphere here. I'm hoping next year, you'll be seeing me in some of these bigger races."

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2:23 p.m.: Four military jets fly over the race course. "God Bless America" blares over the loudspeakers.

2:31 p.m.: In the eye of the infield hurricane, Adam Palm, 35, and Peter Timmins, 34 - two New York businessmen who have been friends since childhood - are ducking beer cans and debating what the craziest thing they've witnessed is during six years of attending the Preakness, and partying in the infield.

"One year, I can remember two huge guys, I think they were ex-Marines, getting in a fight. That was an absolute battle royal," Palm says. "It was muddy that year, so everyone was just caked in grime. And my buddy Pete here, he jumps in and starts refereeing it, like it's a steel cage match."

"I love this place, I love coming here, but logistically, it's a mess," Timmins says.

"Seriously, look around you," Palm says. "I think Iraq might be more stable than this place."

In the distance, two women lift up their shirts to reveal their breasts, and close to 30 males whip out cell phone cameras to take pictures.

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3:31 p.m.: Two college kids get dragged out of the infield for fighting. One is bleeding from his left eye, the other is caked in dirt, his shirt torn.

Threatened with expulsion from the track, they swear to behave, even shaking hands and embracing, but security isn't buying it. They walk out together, cursing and rubbing their injuries.

5:10 p.m.: Charles Johnson, 51, has been selling concessions for 22 years, and when it comes to moving Black-Eyed Susans, there are few that are better.

Maybe none.

"Suzys! Fresh Suzys, right here!" he says, his voice booming. "You need 'em, I got 'em."

Johnson, who used to work at Memorial Stadium before moving to Philadelphia in 1999, says he'll probably sell close to 240 drinks during the Preakness (not including beer). At $8.50 a pop, that's no small amount of cash, both for him and for the vending company. Most of the time, Johnson installs garage doors, but the money in vendor sales is too good to give up entirely.

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"I worked the Super Bowl this year, and made about 900 bucks," he says. "Not a bad day."

5:56 p.m.: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. walks past the grandstand into the paddock, but on his way he stops to kiss Linda Bernier on the cheek.

"I met him a few years ago, and I just think he's such a nice guy," says Bernier, a horse racing lifer who works for Joseph A. Devereux, the trainer of Flaminsun.

"It's so nice that he remembers me."

Bernier, who also walks and grooms horses at Pimlico and Laurel, is also a novice owner herself. Growing up in West Virginia, her family didn't have a color television, so she'd walk three miles to a friend's house to watch the Kentucky Derby each year. She's been in love with horses every since. Her own horse, GI Louie, is named after her son, a member of the Maryland National Guard.

She says even though she likes Ehrlich, she thinks he's in for a tough race if he faces Mayor Martin O'Malley. Whoever wins, he needs to bring slot machines to Maryland, she says.

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"I think those against slots feel like they're bad for us, and the thing is, they're probably right," Bernier says. "But people are just going to go elsewhere and play them. There are too many people who depend on horse racing for their livelihood to not have them."

6:17 p.m.: Brother Derek trainer Dan Hendricks, who has been in a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident two years ago, watches the race from inside the paddock. His wheelchair couldn't make it through the dirt between the paddock and the grandstand, so he watches on television, biting his lip, surrounded by more than 20 family members and friends.

6:18 p.m.: Barbaro, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, leaves the gate early. There's nervous laughter in the crowd.

6:19 p.m.: The horses leave the gate. The 131st running of the Preakness Stakes begins.

6:20 p.m.: Someone in the crowd begins to scream. "Barbaro pulled up! Oh my God! He pulled up! Somebody help him!"

6:22 p.m.: In the stands, two women in expensive dresses are screaming, wailing through tears. "Don't you dare kill that horse! Don't you dare put that horse down!" Barbaro, his ankle badly broken, continues to kick.

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6:25 p.m.: The ambulance doors are closed. Barbaro is taken from the track. His eyes are red and full of fear. A small cheer can be heard in the grandstand, but most fans are still in shock.

6:45 p.m.: NBC announcer Bob Costas interviews Tom Abertrani and Javier Castellano in the winner's circle. Photographers elbow for position. Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele pose for pictures and shake hands with the winners.

7:58 p.m.: In the nearly empty hallways of the grandstand, Pimlico staff members sweep up trash, clean up spills, and talk quietly among themselves.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com



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