Just like in the movie Casablanca, it's easy to get into Rick's Place--if you know Rick.
Rick's is a black and yellow nylon tent that Rick Hansen, a Baltimore canvas dealer, has fashioned in the shape of a black-eyed Susan to shelter his annual Preakness party on the infield at Pimlico.
As one of dozens of hastily erected establishments, Rick's is not so far removed from Humphrey Bogart's celebrated club. It makes a cozy spot to duck in out of the rain, tip a beer and wage light conversation with the likes of Kiernan Gannon, wearing a specially purchased $9.97 polyester Hawaiian shirt from K-Mart that he agreed was hideous. Or discuss with Adam Goodfellow his campaign, "Jews for Beirut," which he was conducting after placing a $30 bet on a horse named Beirut II in a preliminary race. Sad to say, Beirut II finished out of the money, and Goodfellow sighed, "I'm bucking history."
He was about the only one today as more than 40,000 beer drinkers, hedonists and even a few racing fans streamed into the muddy infield at Pimlico to uphold the Preakness tradition of crowding a whole party season into a single afternoon.
The annual bacchanal on the infield at Pimlico is an opportunity to listen attentively to a "dramatic rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance," paint your toenails florescent chartreuse, wear a plastic replica of a king crab on your head, wait in Star Wars-sized lines in front of Spot-a-Pots, detonate firecrackers, wear T-shirts made for the occasion to say things like, "Preakness 83, Licence to be Ignorant." And perhaps glimpse a few thoroughbreds.
"You saw 'Animal House?' " said Alan Cinsavich, as several empty kegs of beer flew back and forth. "That was acting. This is real. This is the one time a year I make a fool of myself."
Cinsavich, an electrical engineer from Baltimore, is part of a group known as The Rowdies who know each other from past Preakness parties and call each other by nicknames like Face, Tongue, Captain, Moo and Mr. Natural. Cinsavich is known as Slick.
The group achieved an infield first four years ago by adding a grungy mustard-colored couch to an encampment that included kegs of beer, portable grills, coolers, a television set and enough hamburger, hot dogs and potato chips for 25 people. This year, bracing for the rain that came around midday, the Rowdies ferried in lumber, plastic tarps and a staple gun and put up a deluxe shelter before setting down to the serious business of debauchery.
"If no one has a good time there's something wrong with them," said Mary Mullin, a 23-year-old who said she was out for one last fling before heading to Fort Wayne, Ind., to marry an office manager at K-Mart.
There are betting windows in the infield, and plenty of people lined up to wager, but the races for the most part are merely a backdrop to the revelry, an excuse to howl like coyotes when the the trumpet sounds and the track announcer launches into his incantatory spiel.
The standard infield joke ("I went to the Preakness and never saw a horse") is now a commonplace feature on bumper stickers. Getting a party site set up is a serious business that involves much planning and strategy. Early morning at the infield looks like a reenactment of the Oklahoma land rush as revelers scurry about staking claims and cordoning off plots.
Later the scene resembles a refugee resettlement area as heavily laden people haul supplies past the razor-wire fences and military police from the Maryland National Guard. Crowds mill about, listening to rock bands and grabbing free hats from radio station promotion vans. Vendors hawk Pimlico's own Preakness elixir, Black-Eyed Susans at $3.75 a throw; you get to keep the glass. There are souvenir stands selling pens and jackets, two infirmiry tents supplied with Pepto Bismol, Maalox and bandages for the most common injury--lacerated feet.
Heavy rains turned the infield into a gumbo and for the better part of an hour the main attraction was not the horses whisking around the track in preliminary races but a bunch of shirtless gladiators wrestling in the mud.
When the downpour turned torrential, Jet Lauck, who had driven up from Falls Church and stopped in at "Rick's," began to grumble.
"If Rick thinks this is a good idea he's wrong."
"What are you talking about, Jet?" said Kiki Gannon, who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Rick, or something. "You turkey, you're having a great time."
But a little rain is next to nothing compared to the problems of finding a bathroom. Mark Naumann and Tim Kline know economic opportunity when they see it. They have been organizing Preakness parties for a dozen years. This year they began planning in January and they had to turn away people who were willing to pay $12 for an orange T-shirt, a bottomless supply of beer and the run of two refrigerator-sized outhouses made out of triple wall cardboard.
Proudly pointing to the facility, Naumann said, "A lot of people have told me that that alone is worth $12."