It really doesn't matter who the horses are in this Saturday's 108th Preakness. And unless you've wagered piles of money, it doesn't really amount to a hill of beans who wins. Contrary to what handicappers say about racing, what really matters on Preakness Day is the infield fun at Pimlico.
The day is double-billed as "Maryland's Greatest Sports Spectacle" and "Maryland's Best Entertainment Buy," and sometimes it's hard for a novice to decipher whether most of the hubbub is over the middle jewel of the Triple Crown or what could be considered the annual state carnival. But past experience says it's the latter.
More than 45,000 "race fans" are expected to pay $7 apiece to convert the grassy 30-acre infield area into a sea of bodies with coolers, barbecues and tents -- more like a crowded beach than a sporting event at the country's second-oldest race course. (An additional 35,000 will converge on the clubhouse and grandstand areas.)
"It's like a Woodstock," claims horse enthusiast Spero Peratino. "It's just one big party."
Track officials have worked hard each year since 1969 to make it that way. Infield gates open at 9, advance pari- mutuel windows at 10:30, and the first race is at noon. There'll be a club lacrosse game at 10 and the famous Budweiser Clydesdales will perform. Festivity organizers will be sending out more notes than the Federal Reserve with a dixieland band, Zim Zemarel's band, the Colts' marching band, a country/rock band, and reggae, calypso and Jamaican bands, not to mention the hundred-voice Baltimore Symphony Chorus on hand to sing "My Maryland."
Named for the horse that won the first stakes race at Pimlico, The Preakness is the eighth of nine flat races and is set to run at 5:40. It's a mile and 3/16, a half-furlong shorter than the Kentucky Derby.
There'll be places to make bets, tents to buy Maryland crab cakes, Maryland Fried Chicken, countless hot dogs, hamburgers, Black-Eyed Susans (rum, vodka and citrus juices -- you keep the glass) and beer.
"The first time I went to the Preakness I didn't even see a horse," says veteran infielder Bill Queen, a Baltimore transplant now living in Laurel. The infield is still his base of operations, but "I don't bet in the infield, I like the feel of the grandstand."
For those who agree with Queen or tire of the pulsating infield, a tunnel runs into the grandstand where the pari- mutuel lines are shorter and television monitors make the race easier to see.
Vision on the field is limited at best, partly owing to the constant movement of the crowd. It's a city of fun-lovers living in an oval for a day with one shared dream -- a bathroom without a line -- an impossible dream at that despite more than a hundred portable toilets lining the infield like a port-a-john convention.
The best tip of the day is to take public transportation. Pimlico, in Baltimore City, has parking for only 6,000 cars. Every young entrepreneur and his brother will be selling spots in their neighbors' front yard.
Reserved seating in the clubhouse and grandstand has been sold out since mid-April, according to Pimlico officials. Standing room is still available at $10 a ticket for the clubhouse and $7 for the grandstand; those and infield tickets can be bought at the gate on race day. GETTING TO THE RACES -- Take the Baltimore Beltway north toward Towson, then exit at 18-E (Liberty Road), left on Northern Parkway and follow signs. 301/542-9400.