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The way Preakness used to be

May 21, 2013

The author, left, at Preakness 2005

My colleague Brandon Weigel posted yesterday about his experience at the 2013 Preakness, his first. He talked about his vantage point from the grandstand, his bets, his entry into into the cushy confines of the VIP section. I was moved to respond, first, to tell the young whippersnapper how things were “in my day,” and also because Brandon did something that drove me crazy each of the 12 or 13 years I went to Preakness: He ignored the action on the infield, where most Preakness-goers spend their day.

I attended my first Preakness in 1992, as a high school senior. The night before, three friends and I pooled our money and asked my sister’s boyfriend to buy us a case of beer. He did so without a second’s thought or a cut while I waited in the backseat of his car – God bless you, Jason Becker, wherever you are.

We didn’t know anything about horses – didn’t see one all day – but loved getting drunk in the sun with our friends. Maybe loved it too much: My day ended passed out near a pool of my own vomit, hours before the 10th race. When I finally got home, I caught a glimpse of the evening news: Who were all those people in fancy hats and suits? Where the hell were they? I scoured the Sun the next day, which had pages and pages of Preakness coverage, and found one sidebar about the “infield crazies,” listing arrests and ejections.

Over the years, I learned to pace myself, beerwise. A crew of friends came back to Preakness every year for the spectacle, to people watch, and people-meet – some years, I had more conversations with strangers in one day at Preakness than I did the entire rest of the year. There were no concerts, no bikini contests, just lots and lots and people, many of them drunk. I even started paying a little attention to the horses, making a few bets, but that was always secondary to the mass of humanity getting drunk together on a sunny day in Baltimore. That was always the real attraction.

And contrary to stereotypes, the infield took all kinds. Yeah, there were always a lot of college mooks mostly interested in begging girls to flash their boobs (and plenty of girls happy to oblige). But there were also plenty of folks from every age bracket, some with lawn chairs, paying closer attention to the races, some who had brought elaborate picnics and crafted furniture made out of packing tubes, lots of people who had driven hours to come. Plenty of folks like me and my friends, just relaxing, chatting with our “neighbors,” taking it all in.

Things definitely started to take a turn toward the anarchic in the early aughts: More fights, more cops, more blood. When they started doing the running of the port-o-potties, with throwing full beers into the crowd, I knew the end was near for the “anything-goes” days of Preakness. That last year of bring-your-own-beer, in 2008, 300 people from the infield were taken to the hospital. Sooner or later, someone would die.

I went to my last Preakness in 2009, the first year of the new infield policy, which included beers for $3.50 and a Buckcherry concert. The infield had become indistinguishable from any music festival in America. That year, I had a media pass, so I was able to check things out from the grandstand for the first time. I was amazed how completely obscured the action on the infield was from there – about as obscured as the grandstand is from the infield.

Things are probably better this way, certainly safer. But I can’t help but miss the freewheeling spirit that once served as the core of this treasured Baltimore tradition.