THE NIGHT BEFORE LAST YEARS’S PREAKNESS STAKES,
Among the silvery breeders, swollen frat boys, and other endangered species of Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes.
I stood on a corner of Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore and watched the parade celebrating the running of the thoroughbreds. Pratt Street is a five-lane artery that passes through the Inner Harbor, a promenade encircled by the glass walls and neon scripts of chain seafood restaurants, a haven for tourists in what had once been the city’s commercial port. Student and civic groups filed eastward along Pratt with banners stretched and thrust forward. Teenagers stomped in military troupes, their faces shaded by drooping berets. The Baltimore Entertainment Marching Band’s dancers shuffled by in a line, the yellow light of the street lamps reflecting off their lamé tights. A string of local beauty queens, crowned by dubious pageant committees and awarded titles like Ms. Greater Baltimore and Ms. Teen Maryland, waved from the backseats of Camaros.
Soon a twenty-five-foot-long inflated pink horse loped past. The animal hovered above the crowd, cantering as attendants tugged on its anchoring ropes. Two blocks after it passed me, the balloon’s body began to drag. Its left legs folded, buckling at the knees, and onlookers pointed and shouted warnings to no one in particular. The float leaned to the left and tottered toward the ground until it had collapsed on its side, its undercarriage dimpled by the heads of the people caught underneath. The parade halted. Dozens scrambled to the toppled figure, and for several minutes the crowd waited quietly as the horse’s head heaved gently against the pavement. A high school marching band repeated the same tune, stepping in place to the beat, until, finally, the horse was righted and sent to waver again in the evening breeze.
MAGNA ENTERTAINMENT CORPORATION
, which owns Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness is held every third Saturday in May, filed for bankruptcy in March 2009. In the months since, one Baltimore developer has proposed razing Pimlico and building a mall in its place—a move that prompted the governor to sign a bill permitting the state to exercise its eminent-domain powers to keep Pimlico operating. (The track was set to be sold at auction this past March, but was instead bought by Magna’s parent company, which plans to develop some of the property’s 565 acres.) The morning of last year’s race was greeted with newspaper articles questioning the future of Pimlico. Die-hard horse-racing fans—the remaining few who still spend their days at the track decoding the Daily Racing Form
—grumbled that this Preakness could be the track’s last.
Although the number of bets cast has increased with the advent of off-track betting, the income they generate largely escapes the clutches of track owners. In the 1990s, many underestimated the appeal of simulcasting and licensed their races for next to nothing. Bettors migrated to suburban casinos and OTB terminals, and tracks—the essential components of the gambling supply chain—were left empty-handed, and unable to afford the high purse fees necessary to attract thoroughbreds that fans would travel to see. Five years ago, Pimlico cut its losses and eliminated more than half of its racing days. Today, the track holds races a mere twenty days per year.
For nearly a decade, Maryland has wrestled with the question of whether to allow slot machines at Pimlico. The question is less one of upholding the purity of the sport than one of the state endorsing gambling. While advocates argue that slots are, literally, revenue machines, many local residents are wary of introducing new betting opportunities to a poor neighborhood, fearing increased crime and depreciated home values. In 2008, Maryland voters approved slots for the purpose of reviving the state’s racing industry. But in February of the next year, in a moment of utter incompetence, Magna bungled its application for a slots license and was disqualified from the bidding process. Bankruptcy soon followed.
When I met the trainer Bob Baffert by the barns behind Pimlico, he told me he hoped the doomsayers would be proved wrong. “You know, I’d move here. I love it here,” he said. With his silky white hair and ever-present sunglasses, Baffert is the sport’s most recognizable figure. As we talked, a steady stream of strangers and acquaintances stopped to shake his hand and pay their respects to the four-time Preakness winner. After five minutes, I could tell he was searching for a polite way out of our interview, so I pushed him to consider what would ensue should the unthinkable happen and Pimlico close.
“They need to do something
,” he said, shedding his gentlemanly restraint. “It’s ridiculous. This is a beautiful sport, beautiful horses. The classics keep horse racing alive: They keep big money in the game.” Before parting, Baffert put the terms of Pimlico’s survival bluntly. “If the Preakness moves, you can kiss horse racing good-bye.” I would see Baffert again later that day, this time on Pimlico’s closed-circuit television. He wore a patrician blazer and smilingly recited the worn lines he must repeat each year, praising his horse, Pioneerof the Nile, and assessing his chances. “I still want to see what my horse does on dirt,” he said. “He's going to run a big race.”
TO PAY ITS YEARLY EXPENSES,
Pimlico depends on selling every seat on Preakness day. Those seats include the infield, the pitch of grass circumscribed by the racetrack. In order to get people to pay the infield entrance fees, which have in recent years climbed to more than fifty dollars, Pimlico offered an ingenious deal: In exchange for buying a ticket, you could bring in as much beer as you could carry. Tens of thousands descended on Pimlico’s infield gates each year. Teams of high school boys lugged hefty coolers stuffed with ice and beer from distant parking lots. The fraternity and sorority sets arrived in the morning as adults, only to be ferried away from Pimlico, sunburned and swollen, on rented yellow school buses in the late afternoon.
The most infamous infield activity is the urinal run, a homegrown sport of sorts. The event begins with an infielder lifting himself onto the roof of a Porta-Potty at one end of a row of commodes. A gauntlet is formed: on one side, more rows of toilets; on the other, the swarming crowd. The runner takes his first steps across the plastic crappers, and as if on cue, infielders from all around turn and launch full cans of beer and debris at him. The runner wobbles, teetering sideways as cans explode at his feet; he throws up his hands to block the missiles. If he is triumphant, he dismounts at the urinals’ end to congratulatory hoots. If he misjudges his footing or is beaned too hard, and falls to the ground, he loses, joining the rest of the bodies sprawled and huffing on the sodden grass.
The historic Woodlawn Vase, presented annually to the winner of the Preakness Stakes.
The urinal run became legend after infielders began posting videos of the contests online. I never witnessed a run during my times in the infield, but I’ve seen many other things: Men pissing in the cracks between the portable toilets, their discharge running off onto the ground where people sat. Women folded over on their hands and knees, vomiting as an encircling crowd bellowed in approval. “Show your tits!” belched out to girls straddling men’s shoulders. Infielders hurling unopened beer cans indiscriminately into the surrounding masses after realizing they had carried far more alcohol than they could drink.
And the fights
. I’ve seen everything from slap fights and chest-bumping matches, which occur with greater frequency as race day wears on, to terrifying, bloody, ten-on-one gang-style assaults. The most notorious combatant was Lee Chang Ferrell, who, during the seventh race in 1999, jumped the infield’s fence, ran onto the track, planted his feet into the dirt, and fixed his eyes on the thoroughbreds thundering toward him, poised to duel. As the horses swerved to the rail to dodge Ferrell, he swung his fist and caught jockey Jorge Chavez’s leg. Chavez’s horse, which was toward the front of the pack, turned an ankle and lost pace, while the others sped by untouched. Somehow Ferrell avoided what should have been a certain mauling. In the photograph printed in the Baltimore Sun
the next day, he looked almost heroic as he braced to strike the stampeding fleet. A news story published on the day of last year’s Preakness reported that Ferrell has no memory of the encounter.
Top: Lee Chang Ferrell swings at horses during the 1999 Preakness.
Bottom: Baltimore Police Mounted Unit, 1982 Parade at Pimlico.
THE DEBAUCHERY OF THE PREAKNESS INFIELD
Digital scans of a fossilized proto-horse, Merychippus
has never been a secret. Indeed, it has been a tolerated, if unspoken, rite of passage for Baltimore youths. But the sordid details of what transpired there only became public with the advent of YouTube. In 2009, after years of streaming video and increasingly censorious press coverage, Pimlico entered its prohibition era. Ticket prices remained as high as before, but booze could no longer be carried in. To make up for this, Pimlico organized a cut-rate Spring Fling, a smattering of entertainment that, of course, could only be enjoyed while consuming massive amounts of beer. Bikini-clad women played volleyball in a makeshift sandpit; others strutted in a Hooters-sponsored swimsuit contest. A local radio station organized an air-guitar competition, with the winner receiving two tickets to that season’s Mötley Crüe reunion tour. There was an oxygen bar where, for a sum, fans could have aromatic “shots” of the eighth element hosed into their noses. From there, they could proceed to the nearby video-game tent to play a virtual version of the urinal run, lobbing beer cans at poorly rendered jockeys hopping across a field of toilets. Chants of "Bodymore, Murderland!" rang out from the game's speakers. The day’s entertainment culminated in an appearance by ZZ Top, who played rote versions of “Tush” and “Legs” while moving arthritically onstage.
Around one that afternoon, Joe De Francis, who owned Pimlico until selling his controlling interest in 2002, peered at the infield from the press-box balcony atop the track’s grandstand. His jaw slackened. “I thought there would be half as many people as last year,” he said, pointing at the ground below. “But this?” Wide patches of grass were deserted. The yellow-shirted security guards seemed confused about what to do with the few, well-behaved, attendees—there was no one to reprimand or escort outside, no fights to break up, no unconscious people in need of paramedics. And so they congregated in tight packs, dotting the infield like lonely sunflowers.
I asked E. J. Dawson, a security guard who had patrolled the infield during the past four Preaknesses, if he planned on coming back to work next year. “Not if they don’t let in beer cans,” he replied.
On the sidewalk outside the track, Sheila Stottlemeyer, the proprietor and operator of the Redneck Woman’s Hot Dog Wagon, reported a 60 percent decline in sales from the year before. “It’s all because they won’t allow people to bring alcohol in,” she said.
The steep drop-off in attendance was apparent in the streets bordering Pimlico, too, but residents I spoke with were uninterested in discussing the track’s gloomy future. “Preakness is a nice thing for the neighborhood,” Stevford Clarke, an older man who lives in one of the many row houses facing the track, told me. He was sitting on his front stoop with a friend, Pablo Roberts, who insisted on being identified as “Killer.” Together, they recalled past races, bets won on the horses, and money earned from the jerk chicken Clarke used to sell from his front yard. “It’s lots of fun—lots of sexy girls,” Clarke said about the Preakness. “And everybody makes money.” Killer smiled in agreement.
WILLIAM NACK’S SECRETARIAT
Pimlico was built on a seventy-acre parcel in 1870, and it has since become a boundary between neighborhoods. Park Heights is a predominantly black neighborhood to Pimlico’s south. Its residents tend to be working class and poor; boarded-up and abandoned homes, some ceded to the bank or the city, are common. Mount Washington, the tony neighborhood to the north where I was raised, is lined with turreted homes set dozens of yards from the road, some of which have earned historical-preservation status. For as long as anyone here can remember, Pimlico has defined Park Heights and Mount Washington by virtue of separating them. It’s no surprise that, for many residents, life without Pimlico seems tantamount to living without the sharp distinctions that have shaped these neighborhoods since its construction.
I remember spending summers at the Mount Washington Pool, a private swimming club to which my parents and many of our neighbors belonged. The club had fixed geographic boundaries for its membership, and in the front office, management had hung a blown-up street map of northwest Baltimore with the pool’s eligibility area circumscribed by a thick black line, Pimlico marking the southernmost limit. The implications of that line were unmistakable. On the annual “community day,” the only time the pool was open to nonmembers, scores of black bathers showed up to swim. Otherwise, I remember only one black swimmer: Kenny, the boy from Manhattan Avenue—two blocks outside the pool’s bounds—who would arrive at the front door alone, a towel dangling from his shoulder, waiting for a member to sign him in as a guest.
Pimlico Clubhouse, photographed in 1955, and via Google Street View.
, one of the finest books on horseracing, begins by setting forth a genealogy not unlike an early chapter of Genesis: There was Nearco, who begat Nasrullah, who begat Bold Ruler, who begat the prodigal Secretariat
. Before each race at Pimlico, the descendents of these great lines are trotted out to a paddock on the grandstand’s ground level, and people cram along the restraining bars and press themselves against the windows of the mezzanine to gaze on them. The thoroughbreds have massive middles, improbably supported by their jagged, wiry lower legs. (One wall of Pimlico’s paddock is lined with nine different horseshoes, hung and labeled by type; none are thicker than an inch, and they seem like they would be flattened by their wearers like coins under a train’s wheel.) Yet when the horses move, their muscles ripple fluidly, elegantly, in an uninterrupted chain of flex and release, and it becomes clear that each part was engineered to propel the animals forward. Even when they shit midstride—which they do freely and often—their droppings form perfect, evenly spaced circles on the ground, like dough on a baker’s sheet.
Despite the ecstasy the horses inspire, Pimlico is, at bottom, nothing more than a gambling hall. The first constitution of the Maryland Jockey Association, the body that governs Pimlico, speaks only of the rules of making bets. That founding document, whose original parchment is showcased in Pimlico’s museum room, is a lawyerly recitation of conditions and regulations that, to no surprise, benefit the house: “Money given to have a bet laid shall not be returned though the race be not run.”
Above: Pimlico's finish line scene at the 2007 Preakness. Below: A racing simulation, now offered as an iPhone application.
There is a good reason that the Maryland Jockey Association’s constitution speaks entirely of wagering. As soon as personal risk is assumed, the race slips from the aesthetic realm of flawless horses running a circuit to the visceral one of pounding chests and dollar bills. At three-thirty in the afternoon, after watching eight races, I cast my first bets of the day. The race suddenly came into focus as I watched the gates open and horses explode outward. I stood when the horses assembled in their tight pack on the opening straightaway, rolling my racing form into a tube and beating it against my palm in rapid claps. “Pull! C’mon, pull, number six!” I yelled, not knowing my horse’s name or, for that matter, whether it was the horse or the jockey that was supposed to be doing the pulling.
Where there had been a trail of animals snorting and lunging, there were now personal consequences. I stood on my toes, tensing my jaw as the horses rounded the final bend. The jockeys took the whip, lashing their animals toward the finish line just in sight. “Number six!” I yelled. Naturally, he finished third—and I was back in line, ready to wager on the next race. Article I of that first bettor’s constitution echoed through the grandstands: “You cannot win where you cannot lose.”
THE PREAKNESS STAKES ended with the cocoa filly Rachel Alexandra, an eight-to-five favorite, crossing the finish line just ahead of Kentucky Derby champion Mine That Bird. She led the field from wire to wire, running speedily but steadily. The seventy-seven thousand assembled bettors applauded as the jockey Calvin Borel rode her to the winner’s circle, and the filly bucked her head, as if recognizing the cheers from on high. Rachel Alexandra’s owner and entourage rushed across a bridge of wooden planks hastily placed atop the track from the grandstand to the winner’s circle, trailed by reporters, photographers, and other revelers. Borel and his saddle were weighed, and the mare, sweating and shiny, was wreathed with a triumphal ring of black-eyed Susans. The win was official. To witness the speed and simplicity of the coronation, the adoration of Rachel Alexandra’s handlers, the solemn formality of the ritual, was to behold a kind of baptism.
For those watching the race from the infield, the view of the finish line was obstructed by the main stage, where the big-ticket entertainers had played; they watched the last few seconds of the race on a suspended Jumbotron. Nevertheless, they cheered Rachel Alexandra with the same excitement they had displayed several hours earlier during a set by the band Buckcherry. That performance is now seared in my memory, thanks to the cutaway image—flashed across the massive screen above the tattooed and writhing musicians—of four women, their arms draped over one another’s shoulders, mouthing the kicker to the closing number, “Crazy Bitch”: “Crazy bitch, suck my dick / Put it between your thighs.”
As the ceremony in the winner’s circle came to a close, and the audience filed toward the exit, the sky opened to the west behind the track to reveal the retreating sun. Those who had won and lost alike were cheerful and tipsy, trading chatty recapitulations of Rachel Alexandra’s victory. There was a giddiness that spread with the crowning of the horse, a sense that we had all been touched by that ring of black-eyed Susans. As I walked across Northern Parkway on the way back to my parents’ home, I saw the remnants of the race. The street was littered with empty cans, crumpled paper, the occasional shoe or shirt. Neighborhood boys pushed shopping carts along the side of the road, searching for attendees who were too tired or drunk to drag their belongings back to their cars. A bald man sold homemade T-shirts with an ironed-on slogan: “Preakness 2009: Drink Up Til You Piss!” He yelled this over and over again, his voice cracking, to a thin line of uninterested passersby.
That afternoon, I had asked a woman named Trina, who was selling parking spaces on her Park Heights yard—she refused to give her last name because she “worked for the city”—what she thought would happen if Pimlico closed for good. “What would they do with all that space?” she replied. "Nothing can take Pimlico’s place.”
Trina looked north, toward Pimlico's mass of concrete siding and gridded glass. Park Heights Avenue stretched toward the track, past blocks of boarded-up row houses sinking into lawns of tall, wild grass. Beyond her view, in the track's parking lot, a group of black men scalping tickets were thrown against the fence by undercover police and threatened with arrest. In Preakness Village, Pimlico’s annex for corporate sponsors, women in sundresses and oversize hats posed for pictures with patrolmen, who pulled their hands behind their backs as if handcuffing them. The governor and state horse-racing officials presided from a box perched above the track, while bettors in the grandstand studied beady monitors simulcasting races from around the world. The thoroughbreds shimmered in the daylight and circled the barren infield.