Big Brown's come-from-behind victory in yesterday's Preakness Stakes, setting up a potential Triple Crown for the first time in three decades, sent fans at Pimlico Race Course into fits of joy - and pushed aside, if only for the moment, unease over the safety of horse racing.
"There's your Triple Crown! There's your Triple Crown!" screamed Suzanne DePaula of Baltimore as Big Brown pulled ahead down the stretch. In the grandstand, ecstatic fans who had made Big Brown the far-and-away favorite stood on their seats and cheered the horse toward home. "I believe we're going to have a Triple Crown," said DePaula, 39. "He has the stamina, he has the quickness, and he has the heart."
For the horse racing industry, facing mounting pressure for reform after Eight Belles' death at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and the fatal injury Barbaro suffered at Pimlico two years ago, the prospect of a Triple Crown is a welcome shot of good news. Another fatal injury, some fans said, and they wouldn't come back. Indeed, this year's crowd of 112,222 was smaller than last year's record of 121,263.
"I think the issue with Eight Belles not only affected us, it affected the sport in its entirety," Michael Iavarone, co-president of IEAH Stables, which owns Big Brown, said after the race. "And it's important for thoroughbred racing to come together as a whole, especially with the chance in Big Brown to make history."
The 133rd Preakness was run yesterday under perfect blue skies. The lone cloud hanging over the race was the persistent fear that a horse would break down. From the muddied masses on the infield to the champagne swillers in the clubhouse, fans watched the 133rd Preakness Stakes with a catch in their throats. The crowd exhaled only after Big Brown won by a commanding 5 1/4 lengths, and the 11 horses behind him crossed the finish line safely.
"My feeling is the racing industry needs to make some changes or they're going to lose this racing fan," said Joan Coolidge, a former horse owner who has attended every Preakness since 1989 and thinks inbreeding among racehorses should be addressed. "I would like it if the racing industry admitted that what they're doing is cruel to animals."
Coolidge, 55, of Front Royal, Va., was part-owner of a horse that had to be euthanized after a race. At the Derby party she threw with her husband two weeks ago, she had to leave the room when Eight Belles went down. But yesterday Coolidge was back in her usual grandstand seat a few rows up from the track, flanked by one sister from California and another from Illinois, hoping for a safe race.
For many, the Preakness is as much about socializing as horse racing. A group of 20 friends drove down from Philadelphia, as they do every year. Six middle-aged men came in from York, Pa., and set up in the infield amid college students from everywhere. The Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at Towson University brought more than 100 30-packs of light beer. They inflated wading pools, filled them with ice and tossed in the beers.
The infield, filled to its 60,000 capacity by 10:30 a.m., was the usual scene of youthful debauchery. Guys wrestled in the mud. Girls were exhorted to shed clothing. Sheets of plastic were turned into makeshift sliding devices. And full beer cans flew through the air for no discernible reason. A few people climbed to the roofs of the portable toilets to reprise last year's infamous "Running of the Urinals." But with the toilets spaced apart this year, they didn't get very far.
From the roof of the grandstand, Pimlico staff and city police and fire officials monitored the infield with binoculars and used radios to direct security to fights or other disturbances. By the end of the day, 126 people had been ejected. It takes some effort to be tossed from the Preakness. Police walked under flying beer cans and through a haze of marijuana smoke without batting an eye.
Police made six arrests, said police spokesman Troy Harris. Two of the arrests were for assault, three for failure to obey police orders and one for disorderly conduct. Pimlico staff made 17 calls for medical assistance to the infield, though no major injuries were reported.
With the track not even visible from much of the infield, the Preakness seemed secondary to the partying. But races throughout the day at least provided an entertaining backdrop. Ana Cruz, an Arizona State University student who gave her age as "21 for the record," said she was waiting for the start of an early race before drinking another beer from the inflatable pool she filled with the help of friends.
Few of the students seemed interested in betting. "All I had money for was beer, tickets and food," said Rich Cline, 22, of Annapolis, listing the items in order of priority.
Not far away, Bill Little, 54, and a half-dozen friends sat on folding chairs, eating fried chicken. They've been coming to the Preakness every year since 1976 and say they prefer the "activity" of the infield to the civility of the grandstand. The oldest in the group was 58, the youngest 46. They said that they hated to see horses injured in racing but that it's a part of the sport.
"It happens all the time," said Little. "Most people don't realize that's part of the industry."
Steve Pessagno, 38, organized a trip to the Preakness for about 20 of his friends in Philadelphia. The group has come every year for the past decade. Taking their seats in the shade of the grandstand, they sketched finish orders for the races on napkins. But after the high-profile racing deaths in recent years, they said they're just happy to see all the horses finish.
"Some people were saying if it happens again, is this a sport we want to support?" Pessagno said. "The horses are well taken care of, but they are fallible."
The other hot topic yesterday was a new rule prohibiting fans from bringing alcohol into the grandstand. In the infield, fans are allowed to carry in beer but not liquor. Some found a way around that rule, though, filling Franzia wine boxes with decidedly harder stuff. In the grandstand, though, spectators resorted to paying $9 for each Black-Eyed Susan (which includes rum, vodka, orange juice and pineapple juice) or other means.
"I think it's unfortunate," Pessagno said of the ban, "but there are ways to get around it, if you know what I mean. We've come up with new strategies to make sure we have the most fun possible."
While the Preakness is more casual than the dandified Derby, women in wide-brimmed sun hats and 4-inch heels and men in plaid blazers and pink pants strolled the Pimlico grounds yesterday. On the infield, the attire, what there was of it, consisted largely of T-shirts advertising either colleges (Loyola, Navy) or alcoholic beverages (Southern Comfort, Patron).
The lines at the betting windows were modest. Some wondered if the racing industry in Maryland would be able to survive without slot machines. Maryland voters will decide this fall whether 15,000 machines will be permitted at five locations. Pimlico is not one of them, but Laurel Park - like Pimlico, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. - is.
"If the revenue supports racing in Maryland, I'm for it," said M.L. Faunce, 63, of southern Anne Arundel County. "Racing has a long tradition in Maryland, and this is the one thing that could help the sport."
Kerry Alexa, 51, said she was undecided on the question of slots. Her mind yesterday was on the more immediate concern of the safety of the horses. She and her husband were in their usual seats near the finish line two years ago when Barbaro broke his leg. They said you could feel the life leave the crowd. "They say the horses love to run," Alexa said, "but at what cost?"
Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.