Crowds sweat through hottest Preakness day in recent memory as race is called for Early Voting

Crowds of racegoers sweated through the hottest day of the year — and the hottest Preakness Stakes in recent memory — at Pimlico Race Course for the 147th running of the Triple Crown’s middle jewel.

Rich Strike, the long shot winner of the Kentucky Derby, skipped the race to the disappointment of many in attendance who turned out on a scorching, 95-degree day to witness Early Voting win the first widely attended Preakness since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than two years ago.


Attendance didn’t come close to matching pre-pandemic figures, like the more than 130,000 who came in 2019, but the day still had the feel of a spectacle.

“It’s a great day, it’s wonderful to have all the crowds back,” Gov. Larry Hogan said from Pimlico Saturday afternoon, though he noted: “It’s a little bit hot, I gotta tell you.”


The sizzling Saturday started innocuously enough, though. It wasn’t quite 80 degrees at 9 a.m. when a group of friends in their mid-20s from Pennsylvania arrived in the infield, just as the gates opened. They each drank a Coors Light as the clock ticked to 10.

“It’s definitely gonna be sweaty, it’s definitely gonna be hot,” Devin Lawhead said. “But, we know how to take care of ourselves.”

The first of 14 horse races took off around 10:30 a.m., and around the track, a hot stampede bumped into one another in thrilling fashion.

Inside the track wasn’t much different. Throngs of sticky revelers bounced around to InfieldFest performances from The Chainsmokers, Moneybagg Yo and Marshmello; the live, electronic music began in the morning and continued throughout the day of races — not even pausing for the national anthem — until the Preakness race.

Temperatures cracked 90 degrees after noon, and infield attendees fought the heat by shedding shirts, seeking scarce shade and hydrating with hoses at water stations. Some were light on horse knowledge — one picked Epicenter to win the Preakness because “that’s the only horse I know” — and were drawn to the event mostly for the music and excitement.

Many, however, weren’t pleased that the Kentucky Derby winner was not in the field, marking the first time since 1985 that a healthy Derby winner had skipped the next race in the Triple Crown series.

“I don’t like that. You gotta defend your potential crown,” attendee Cy Plummer said.

By late afternoon, a hot day became even sweatier and racegoers’ sunburns became sunburned. The dehydrating duo of sun and alcohol forced a few attendees to hit the exits early, while four first-aid tents were stationed across Pimlico for medical emergencies.


“Stay safe, stay hydrated,” Chainsmokers’ singer Drew Taggart told the crowd after their set.

Outside of the venue was a flurry of activity, as Park Heights community members sold water, icees, seafood and parking spots. Others campaigned for Maryland’s upcoming gubernatorial election, positioning a slew of signs alongside roads leading to Pimlico.

Pimlico was spruced up for its biggest day in years, but there were many glaring reminders of the aging track’s dire need for renovations — including tarps covering the 6,670 seats in the abandoned Old Grandstand, which has been shut down since before the 2019 Preakness.

Two years ago, the state allotted $375 million in bonds for renovations to Pimlico and nearby Laurel Park, which are both owned by The Stronach Group, but the initial plans have been delayed by pandemic-related and logistical complications.

“I think COVID had a lot to do with some of the slowness, because you just can’t get materials or workers, everything was sort of shut down,” Hogan said. “They’ve got to step it up and make a little more progress quickly, but it’s just wonderful to have all the crowds back here today, and I think it’s just going to get better in the future.”

A 55-year old Pennsylvania man dressed as a jockey — using the moniker ‘Pat Yesterday’ — defended Pimlico, which has hosted the Preakness for nearly a century-and-a-half.


“I’m aging, too, look at me. I’m like fine wine, just like Pimlico. We age gracefully,” Michael O’Donnell said. “I’ll probably be renovated in a few years myself, like a hip replacement or something.”

As evidenced by broken tiles in the floors, though, the venue needs repairs. Site work, including a 30-degree rotation of the track, may begin at Pimlico after next year’s Preakness, with improvements slated to finish by Preakness 2026.

Two buglers sounded the “Call to Post” before the Preakness race Saturday, and Jari Villanueva became the first Baltimore native to serve as bugler in at least 40 years.

Villanueva, 66, grew up in Baltimore’s Parkside neighborhood, went to Baltimore public schools and attended Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute, he said. He learned how to play the bugle as a Boy Scout, was a military musician during his time in the Air Force, and is president of Taps for Veterans, a national nonprofit providing buglers at military funerals.

“Everyone knows Jari,” said Adrienne Doctor, who also served as a bugler.

When Villanueva was asked if he wanted to play at the historic event, the conversation was short.


“I said, ‘OK, let me think about that — yes,” Villanueva said.

Despite the temperature, Villanueva and Doctor braved the heat like everyone else, wearing traditional bugler attire: a red blazer, a Maryland flag-patterned tie, white riding pants, boots, and a top hat.

Though the soundtrack for much of the blistering day was modern, electronic dance music, the final tune of the day came from the bugles, providing a simple prelude for the storied race.

Baltimore Sun reporters Lee O. Sanderlin, Sanya Kamidi and editor Micha Green contributed to this article.