David Dorsen started the day of the 129th Preakness Stakes by sharing some very good champagne with a friend. After a long day in the tent with the other owners of Triple Crown horses, with a jazz band playing outside, he and co-owner Patrick Dooher joined their trainer, Linda Albert, to walk their horse along the turf in front of thousands of cheering fans.
A horn sounded the call to post. "Maryland, My Maryland" played.
It's like waiting for a verdict at a major trial after months or years of work, said Dorsen, one of the owners of Water Cannon, the long-shot, hometown horse.
"There's nothing you can do about it. It's out of your hands," he said. "There are flashes of light, the jury coming in -- your heart stops. The jury walks over to the judge . . . the envelope is opened. Tensions are building up, building up, building up. You'll find out in a minute or two, or three. Then your emotions just explode out."
Ten years ago, four Washington lawyers took an offhand idea of getting into horse racing, had a power breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel and put up $10,000 each.
One year ago, at the auction the day after the Preakness, the four, now three, bought a 2-year-old gray that had never raced. This year, they watched as Water Cannon struggled, then took off; he won his last five races, all in Maryland.
It all came down to this, on Saturday, at 6:25 p.m.: The gate opened on their chance of a lifetime.
While the record crowd poured into the infield, celebrating one of Maryland's most famous traditions with beer and bikinis and bets, the members of the Nonsequitur Stable waited with ties and stomachs knotted -- but enjoying every moment of it.
"It's just a horse race," said Dorsen, who said he has had trouble thinking about anything else for the past couple of weeks. "But -- we're a part of it. It's us."
It's all very fitting: Maryland is known for its horses. Washington is known for its lawyers. They brought Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (a friend of Dorsen's from Harvard Law School) and his wife along for the show. "I bet on Water Cannon," Scalia said. "But then, I'm usually in the dissent."
Under the shade of the Maryland Jockey Club tent at midday, Scalia and Dorsen hurried to the television monitors for an early race. They watched -- and cheered. Dorsen pumped his fist. The second part of their four-part bet had come through. Only six hours to the real thing.
The owners felt a little sheltered from the excitement of the race; they knew that more than 100,000 people were out there, but they couldn't see or hear them.
In the infield, at the first sunny, hot Preakness since 1999 (last year was the coldest on record, a drizzly high of 52 degrees), people tore off clothes, sweated and drank. Flip-flops pushed crushed Miller Lite cans along the asphalt path. Guys in sunglasses soaked in a kiddie pool and cheered when a group of girls walked by in matching pink tank tops that said "Please return me to 44 Center Street."
Maureen Sullivan, 25, a family therapist who drove down from York, Pa., with her boss, Amy Eskridge, squirted her water gun onto a guy with pierced tongue, pierced eyebrow, pierced nipples and a long black wig. "I like horses," Butch Santucci said, dripping. "They're kind of like big deer."
Behind them, a cheer went up from the crowd: not for the horses. A girl up on someone's shoulders was sliding off her bikini top.
A golf cart with a stretcher on it motored in as another one headed out with a tattooed shirtless man hooked up to an IV. Officials said nearly 100 people were treated for dehydration, with 30 of them taken to hospitals. People ducked inside to cool off, buy iced glasses of black-eyed Susans and place bets.
They called themselves the Nonsequitur Stable because the Latin translates to "does not follow," and while most owners lose money, this group has come out well ahead. One of the partners, Italo Ablondi (known as Al), a prominent international trade lawyer, died in 2001. The other three, Dorsen, Dooher and Ellen Fredel, and Bowie-based trainer Albert are enjoying this ride.
Dorsen, a litigator, does a little of everything: He was the assistant chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. He teaches law at George Washington University. He reviews restaurants for Washingtonian magazine. He was associate producer of a play that ran in London recently. He dines with ambassadors, subscribes to the opera, works out. His car has little oriental rugs as floor mats.
"I'm not a Renaissance man like David," Dooher is quick to say. He works long hours as a tax lawyer, plays golf and tennis, has developed an eye for good horses. He grew up watching races with his dad; his mom told him the first stop on their honeymoon was Atlantic City, where his father won enough to pay for the trip.
A pensions and benefits lawyer, Fredel grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, where her exposure to equestrian life was limited to picking Triple Crown winners out of a hat and trying to ride the cows. (It didn't work too well.) She fell in love with racing when her sister took her to a track in Hot Springs, Ark. "When you watch it on television, you really don't get a sense of how powerful the horses are, how fast they're moving, what's it's like to be near a horse," she said.
And Water Cannon? They can't say enough good things about him. "He's just a delight," Dorsen said.
Dooher and Albert both had their eye on Water Cannon for a while before the auction last May, when they bought him for $37,000. By September, Albert was telling them the horse was fast. This spring, people started asking: Are you going to the Preakness?
They didn't know what to say.
"It's a long, long, long, long shot," Dorsen said.
Forty to one.
"He's won five races in a row," Fredel said. "We said, 'They're coming to us. It's on our home turf. Let's see if we can take the big boys on.' " Their horse Off the Glass ran Saturday as well, another underdog on Preakness Day.
"As long as we're going to go off the deep end," Dooher said, "we might as well go off the deep end in a big way."
Off the Glass came in last.
Water Cannon finished last, too. No more champagne. Instead, they went inside to the bar they usually visit after their horses race. Dooher opened a can of Heineken. "That was a reality check," he said.
Dorsen was still smiling, almost elated despite the result, as he took a plastic cup of beer. They knew Water Cannon's career was just starting. They knew it was a long shot.
"It was exciting. It was a wonderful experience," Dorsen said.
Scalia, in a Water Cannon cap, said, "We're appealing the race."
On Monday, the partners will go to the auction and look for another good horse.