Sunday, May 17, 2009

Preakness in Transition

I live about a mile or so from Pimlico race course in Baltimore's Mt. Washington neighborhood. We've been here since 2003 and have gotten used to (and even look forward to) the mayhem that Preakness day brings each year. Since our house is close enough for a reasonable walk to the track - but not so close that it's right next to the track - our street typically fills up with cars by late morning. Often neighbors will rope off areas in front of their homes to save their spot. This year our street didn't fill up at all. It was almost comical to see a few of our neighors with chairs and cones out to protect spots that no one needed or wanted.

No, with the Md Jockey Club changing its policy from BYOB to $3.50 per beer, the college students and their partying compatriots stayed away from the infield en masse. What an odd sight it was to see the overhead TV shots of an empty infield on Preakness day. What an odd feeling it was for Mt. Washington to feel much like any other Saturday in May (aside from the constantly hovering helicopters and blimp overhead, of course).

In past years, the infield transformed into a sea of people, many of them loaded. Preakness officials finally had it with the escalating levels of violence and ridiculous behavior, from the infamous running of the Spot a Pots, to the propensity of infield goers to chuck a full beer can into the air at no one in particular.

For some videos of the ridiculousness, check out this blog post from Baltimore radio host Nasty Nestor (scroll down for his choice videos, it's unreal).

I haven't been back to the infield in at least 15 years, I think. I used to go in college and then a couple times just after college, but even then, at the ripe old age of 23 or 24, I remember thinking, "whoa, this is a little too much." It's not that it wasn't fun to bring a few beers or 60 and hang out with your friends for the day, it's just that this is a toxic combination:

An endless supply of beer and booze, sun, a sea of humanity, plenty of meatheads looking for a fight, and about 10 hours for the entire boozy pot to stew. Yee-ikes.

On really hot Preakness days, you could just feel the air of violence and danger brewing, as obvious as the beet-red faces of the Marlboro-smoking, cut-off jeans-wearing, shirtless wonders who picked Preakness day to showcase the full aura of their dazzling personalities.

I honestly can't believe it took the jockey club this long to pull the plug on the Freak-ness. Out of towners would see what went on in the infield and think, 'what a bunch of dirt bags.' Still, a part of me misses the aftermath (and during-math) of Preakness day in Mt. Washington. A couple years ago a college-aged kid wandered down onto our block and peed not just in front of our house, but on my car. Another time, we saw two guys just wandering down our street and they asked us how to walk to the campus of Johns Hopkins, which is a good 4 or 5 miles away. I told them it wasn't really a walk, and even offered to drive them but they really wanted to hoof it, so I said, "OK, go to Northern Parkway and make a left..." College.

Back when my friends and I would go we were no different. We'd bring a few cases of beer, a bunch of sandwiches and find parking probably not far from where I live now. Then we'd hire one of the shopping cart kids to haul our supplies to the gate. Then we'd walk among the masses into the infield. Oh good heavens the infield, that hairy, sweaty armpit of a sports venue. We'd plop down our stuff and initially you would have a specific area to call your own, outlined with string or by the outline of your chairs. But the over the course of the day the lines would blur and blend from one camp to the next. By 2 or 3 o'clock, it was just one big field party. No rules, no lines, and quite often, no shirts.

Don't get me wrong, it was mostly a fun party, but you were always one bumped shoulder into the wrong guy away from a haymaker.

I guess the ultimate problem with the infield was that the people tended not to just get drunk, but to get COMPLETELY HAMMERED. People save the Preakness for a special kind of "I'm so drunk I can't see straight," experience. I always remember thinking it just went sooo long. We'd get there at 9 or 10 in the morning and by 4 in the afternoon you're like, "I can't believe we're still here. I can't believe we're still drinking." The lines for the spot a pots were really long and once you got in there, good lord. So we typically would try to hide behind a spot a pot and take care of business hunched into a corner. Classy.

By 5 or 6, forget it. Everyone is blind, fights are breaking out all over the place and you just want to make it out alive and with a representative portion of the people you arrived with 10 hours earlier.

One of my favorite Preakness stories was from a year I didn't go. Two of my friends went and just walked in with a 12-pack of beer each, a few chairs and a cooler. They both drank their 12 pack and passed out, then woke up hours later and all their stuff was gone, just 2 drunk guys lying on the grass amid 50,000 close friends.

A few years after that, a close friend came in town for the festivities and we partied all day. We were pretty wasted by the end of the day but coherent enough to join a group for dinner downtown. I'll never forget he fell asleep at the table so I ordered for him. I'm almost positive we were at Bandaloops in Federal Hill. Anyway, when the food came, I nudged him awake. He found his senses, saw the full plate of food in front of him and smiled before putting it away. Then he fell back asleep. That was the Preakness for us and a lot of people for a lot of years.

This year, they took the air out of the free-for-all party balloon. Time will tell if it was a good idea. But as the event got more violent and out of control by the year, I can't help but think it was the right call. The Preakness had to get through this year when no one came to the infield so that the event can transition from what it was, to what it will become.

A part of me will miss the stupefied revelers wandering our streets looking for their cars after it's all over. But it was time for a change. Let's hope the Preakness finds a new identity and that the hordes return. I'd love to go back and take a look around.


Brien said...

Great post. I went this year and it was really sad to see what became of Preakness. I don't think it was the right decision. I definitely felt the safety concerns, but they mostly stamped out the port-a-pot racing last year, and I feel like they could have done something similar with the thrown beer cans.

We had a lively discussion about it over at East Coast Bias

Greg Abel said...

Thanks for the comment Brien, you guys have a great site. I guess the question is what is/can be a happy medium between complete debauchery and way too subdued. Then, of course, there's the question of whether or not the Preakness will be back at all...

Unknown said...

I just feel bad for all those 18-21 year-olds who won't get to go to this rite of passage. I have fond and blurry memories from the infield. Good times.

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