The Preakness Stakes returned to its usual third weekend in May on a gorgeous, 75-degree Saturday, after last year’s race was delayed, then run at an empty Pimlico Race Course in October because of COVID-19.
The 10,000 fans allowed to visit the Northwest Baltimore track for their first Preakness in two years arrived to a scaled-down version of the traditional Maryland rite of spring, which drew a crowd of 131,256 spectators in 2019.
Despite the smaller crowd, the Grandstand rumbled with spectators stamping their feet as the horses left the gate, and a collective roar filled the air as Rombauer won in an upset, outrunning favorites Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon down the stretch.
The controversy over Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit’s failed post-race drug test loomed large over the 146th running of the race Saturday, and reminders of the pandemic abounded at the track. But being at Old Hilltop at all was a treat for Elizabeth and Michael Allegretti.
The Allegrettis, who live in Savannah, Georgia, got engaged at the Kentucky Derby in 2018. Throughout the pandemic, with few other sports on TV, they’d watched endless horse racing, they said. On Saturday, they dropped off their 4-month-old, Elaine, with Elizabeth’s parents in Easton before embarking on their first big outing without her.
The couple wore matching outfits and hats — a floral yellow dress and a yellow blazer, with pink ribbons on their hats — and sipped black-eyed Susans, the official Preakness cocktail, in the concourse to celebrate.
“It’s good to be back at a live event,” Elizabeth Allegretti said.
Colorful masks — COVID-era fashion — completed snappy, hat-adorned outfits at the track Saturday. Mask-wearing was inconsistent, especially outside; Gov. Larry Hogan had lifted the state mask mandate, but Mayor Brandon Scott had left the city’s in place. Both men attended the festivities.
Rapper 2 Chainz headlined “Preakness Live,” performing for fans in hundreds of four- to eight-person “pods” of folding chairs separated by bicycle racks, which replaced the often rowdy, always muddy InfieldFest concert festival on the inside of the track.
Philip Gibson, Charles Franklin, Stacee Elouadihi and Ismail Ahmad, assembled in one pod, didn’t mind the new infield configuration.
”They did a great job with the setup — everything from the food and organizing,” said Gibson, of Rockville, adding he would definitely come back next year.
Saturday was Chenire Carter’s third Preakness concert, and initially, she worried the bicycle rack pods would feel like “little cages” and put a damper on the infield atmosphere.
“I like the concept of trying to keep it safe, but it doesn’t feel as communal,” said Carter, who lives in Cherry Hill. ”It’s a beautiful day to celebrate Baltimore, though.”
Beyond separating attendees, the Preakness Live pods dressed up the infield, where grass could still be seen as of Saturday. Gone were the all-you-can-drink Mug Club, mud puddle dives and occasional drunken attempts at runs atop lines of portable toilets.
Music from outside the track blared across the Pimlico parking lot throughout the day from Richard Thomas’ front porch, where he and his friends Jason Pacheco, known as DJ Axe the Champ, and Duane Charles, DJ Tally, welcomed returning Preakness attendees with a set of thumping pop hits and Caribbean reggae.
”We always do this for the Preakness,” said Thomas, 54, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. “We’re telling everybody, ‘Welcome back.’”
Denise Jackson, who grew up on Winner Avenue, bobbed her head to the music in a folding chair in her yard next door, where she sold “Twisted Ice”: guava, strawberry, banana and mango snow cones.
Jackson, 55, tied blue helium “WELCOME BACK” balloons to the table and a bush this year. With fewer fans attending the race than normal, she scaled back her offerings, which typically include Caribbean curry chicken, rice and peas and callaloo, or cooked greens, she said.
”It used to be bigger,” Jackson said. “I used to cook food, have people through the house. Most of the time, this street would be filled.”
People-watching is her favorite part of Preakness, so she was glad to see even a limited number of racegoers this year.
Vernon Herron’s family decided to come to the track as an early celebration of his 67th birthday on Sunday — and to enjoy time together as a family after an extremely difficult time.
”This has been a very rough year for our family, and we did not want to miss out on a chance to spend time together,” said Herron, a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, who has lived in the Baltimore area for about 40 years but had never attended a race before. A retired Maryland state trooper, he now works for the Baltimore Police Department.
His wife, Carol, 61, was hospitalized with COVID-19 and “the fact that she’s here with us is absolutely a blessing,” he said. “We made a pact not to miss a chance to spend time together.”
On the apron stood military retirees John Merrick, Charles Wynn and Sander Moore. The trio attended their first Preakness on Saturday, driving from Anne Arundel County and arriving around noon.
”We invested in this trip,” said Wynn, 70, adding he would probably come again next year.
”Look how dapper he looks,” said 62-year-old Merrick, pointing to Wynn. They were celebrating brotherhood, he said.
InfieldFest and the smaller crowd weren’t the only COVID-related casualties of the Preakness.
VIPs hobnobbed at the 1/ST Chalet next to the Winner’s Circle. But the large Preakness Village of corporate tents toward the southern end of the track, where company officials and politicians have schmoozed over catering in previous years, disappeared.
As the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the Preakness always magnifies the spotlight on a Kentucky Derby winner chasing history. Few, though, had faced more scrutiny in recent memory than Medina Spirit.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt, who won the Derby and led for most of the Preakness Saturday, ran under a cloud of suspicion after being subjected to additional testing for failing a post-Derby drug test.
The colt finished third in the Preakness, even as Kentucky officials did more testing to determine whether to disqualify his Derby win.
Ken McAndress threw a losing ticket into the air as the horse he picked for an undercard race lost.
McAndress, 59, who lives near Philadelphia, said he doubted Baffert’s integrity. But it didn’t stop him from placing a $100 bet on Medina Spirit, he said.
“I think he cheats,” he said, “but I’ll bet on his horses.”
Malachi Williams Jr., 71, of East Baltimore, who attended with his friend Major Daniels, 69, had spread his $5 Preakness bets around: one on the Derby winner, one on Midnight Bourbon, a third on the 10-1 Crowded Trade and a fourth on the 5-2 Concert Tour.
“Come on, 3!” he shouted again and again as Medina Spirit pounded around the track at the front of the pack. “Lord have mercy! Stay in there, 3!”
When Rombauer crossed the finish line first, Williams sighed.
“You win some; you lose some,” he said.
At least one women’s bathroom was out-of-order, a perennial issue at the 151-year-old track.
But the race’s future in Baltimore, an open question last time fans attended the Preakness at the dilapidated Pimlico Race Course, is no longer uncertain. Pimlico’s owner, the Stronach Group, wanted to move the race to its other track in Laurel, prompting a lawsuit from the city before the parties struck a deal.
Both the Pimlico and Laurel Park facilities will be redeveloped under a $400 million plan that will give the track to the city, keep the Preakness in Baltimore, help revitalize impoverished Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods and allow for alternative, year-round uses for Pimlico.
Gretchen Schnee, Tim Cashen and Susie O’Neill have been coming to the race for decades — O’Neill said she worked at the track as a teenager — and struck up a friendship with usher Michael McNeill when he worked their section at his first race five years ago.
“These are my people,” said McNeill, as they posed for a photo. “They was the nicest folks I ever met, and every year I see them again.”
O’Neill said she rolled her money forward to secure seats after last year’s Preakness ran without fans.
“I feel like a VIP now,” she said.
The weather was also perfect, and the smaller crowd made for easier traffic than usual on the way in. And the hats and outfits were as flamboyant as ever.
”I love to dress for this day,” O’Neill said. “It’s my favorite day of the year, even better than my birthday.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Sanya Kamidi contributed to this article.