First of all, forget the horses. Forget Sunny's Halo, forget Marfa, forget the track, the odds and the Black-Eyed Susans.
To businessfolk and civic leaders alike, here on the banks of the Patapsco River, the 108th running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday isn't a horse race at all. It's a time to tout Baltimore to the high heavens, a time to snare tourist cash, a time for hucksters, boosters and boosterism galore.
It's hype time in Baltimore and the town is in a fever.
All week long, from the Port of Baltimore to the Inner Harbor, the boosters have been staging everything from sock hops, balloon races and midnight tours of town to fastest-talker contests, a torchlight parade and something called Mascot Madness, in which peculiar people donned peculiar costumes for peculiar prizes.
The purpose of all this is to attract attention, tourists and cash--not necessarily in that order--and on all three scores Baltimore seems to be doing quite well.
"No, we're not trying to rival Louisville and the Kentucky Derby, and if you say we are I'll never speak to you again," said Randi Rom, a sensitive young spokeswoman for the Baltimore office of promotion and tourism that organized some 40 strange Preakness Festival events around town this week.
"Really, the horse race just gives us a good opportunity to be proud of the town and bring people together. Did I tell you about the waiters' race? Oh, it was a smash."
As silly as all this may sound, it's serious business to the Baltimore economy, according to the Maryland Horseracing Council, which helps promote the sport and tourism throughout the state. Nearly 90,000 people are expected to attend the race at Pimlico, about 30,000 of them from out-of-town. Those 30,000 visitors are spending upwards of $15 million this week in Baltimore, according to the council's executive director, Ralph Elsmo.
"Hey, we're not talking peanuts here," said Elsmo, who is known about town as "Mr. Infield" because he presides each year over the wild and boozy crowds congregated at Pimlico's infield on Preakness Day. "We reach over 200 million people around the world through the media. We've handed out 700 press credentials. People are here from Paris, London and Japan. We'll have some 4 million bucks bet on this one race alone.
"Yeah, this year's probably the biggest, as far as fanfare is concerned," continued Elsmo, who has been involved with the Preakness for 29 years. "Just the other day I saw a sign in a store window advertising a Preakness clearance sale. That just tickled me to death. Seems everybody's getting in on the action."
In short, all the hype and hoopla is merely an effort by Baltimoreans to let people know that the town, in Elsmo's words, is not just a place you go through on your way between Philadelphia and Washington.
But there is one soul who would probably do cartwheels in his grave, knowing what was happening in his beloved city during Preakness Week, vintage 1983. H.L. Mencken, Baltimore's favorite son and famous man of letters, was well known for his acerbic loathing of civic boosters and advertisers and the gimmicks of their trade.
This week the Baltimore bard's typewriter surely would have crackled with indignation, for there have been gimmicks galore. There was, for example, the "Freakness Stakes" at a shopping plaza in which 16 Baltimore businesses staged a mock horse race around a water fountain. The race was broadcast live by a local radio station. For everyone involved it all amounted to a lovely opportunity for free advertising.
And today on the west shoreline of the Inner Harbor, in an event in which all proceeds thankfully went to charity, there was something called "The Great Celebrity Horseshoe Pitching Contest." As shoppers and tourists bustled in and out of Harborplace for food and gifts, "celebrities" representing corporations and organizations such as IBM, C&P Telephone, Baltimore Gas & Electric and the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates took turns tossing horseshoes and glad-handing spectators.
For two full hours at lunchtime the Harborplace plaza resounded with play-by-play of the action over loudspeakers, enthusiastically announced by a local radio personality.
At various times, as passersby looked on with befuddlement, the announcer shouted into the microphone, "Way to go, C and P!" "A ringer for IBM!" and "Great toss, Senator Blount!"
It was enough to make the ghost of a bard turn red.