Going from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness Stakes was depressing. At first, anyway. (See our video of the scene.) Baltimore, Maryland’s Pimlico Race Track is a ratty, dog-eared venue, down-at-the-heels with the threadbare atmosphere of a gritty OTB. It’s always been a no-frills track for the common man. In contrast, Louisville, Kentucky’s Churchill Downs is more like a comfortable, prim and proper country club — an equine Mecca steeped in majestic style. The Downs trumps Pimlico in style, celebrity buzz, and old-boy southern traditions with a generally well-heeled, fairly behaved crowd (except for the infield’s Bud Light-and-vomit cache). Pimlico corners the market on permissive weirdness and casual debauchery with a shrugging acceptance of advanced age. After spending an hour in Pimlico’s jockey room and prep paddocks (normally off-limits to media) meeting friendly track staff veterans, it was decided: Churchill Downs has an attractive starchy gloss, but Pimlico has soul.
It took a while to figure that out. On a rainy day before the Preakness, most press seemed dour, grumpy, even pissed off. The media center, if you could call it that, looked like a war-torn Baghdad flophouse. Wires hung from rotting ceilings, the work areas were cramped, the media perch to view the races was too small. There was some Irish pub upstairs, which sounded great (Reubens! Guinness!), but a line of cranky journalists snaked down the rickety stairs. Not moving. Pass.
We made arrangements a week in advance for Preakness credentials (hey, sometimes assignments are last minute). I was chewed out — not a nice first impression of the head communications director. I don’t fault him for it, but who needs to be read the riot act? I called the Derby media rep for last-minute credentials. No problem. Gracious press handlers, a state-of-the-art media workspace, bars, free swag, race updates, and press kits available. The viewing area was the best spot in the house. Two tiers, tables and chairs. The work desks were beyond what any member of the press deserves, with all the tech and communication hookups you’d ever need. Walking into that room was heaven, and everyone had a smile, even the surly old-timer print guys.
So, yeah, there are stunning differences between the two legendary races and the venues. But it’s a matter of personal preference: Do you like mint juleps, or black-eyed Susans? Want to arrive on a red carpet, or a street littered with beer bottles? Would you prefer to be whisked off in a stretch Hummer, or offered crack on your way to the car? Tough choices.
At both races, we ran into filmmaker John Hennegan, who recently released the The First Saturday In May, a stunning documentary about the Derby and the unsung heroes and oddball characters behind the sport (think Big Brown’s trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., who tangled with drugs and booze until he hit rock bottom, sleeping on a cot in a horse stall.). Affable and outgoing, Hennegan grew up around New York race tracks and knows the sport from the lowly shit-shovelers to the ego-hungry horse owners. Compare the Downs to Pimlico? No way. “All these tracks are like baseball stadiums,” he said. “They’re all great, and totally different from one another. Try comparing Fenway and Camden.”
It’s a good point. Churchill Downs does not have crazies like Pimlico does. Some may find Churchill too staid and formal, more uptight. Pimlico almost prides itself on teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and revels in its down-to-earth feel. While the Derby provided all the access needed, Pimlico staff went above and beyond the call of duty to welcome lucky press into places most will never see. For instance, I would never get access to the jockey locker rooms at the Downs. And honestly, I should not have had access to that sanctuary at the Preakness.
Sometime around 3 p.m., we found ourselves aimlessly wandering, looking for adult beverages. We sidled past security, our credentials fluttering in the wind, not knowing if we had access or not. Rule of thumb: Just keep moving, give a warm hello to security like old friends, and act like we belong. We wound up in the horse paddocks where thoroughbreds get walked and a last-minute prep before heading out to the track. We shouldn’t be here, obviously. Crowds pressed against gates and windows, straining for a glimpse of Big Brown, Gayego, Kentucky Bear, and Giant Moon.
Act cool, we thought, taking a seat near a stairwell, next to an a a friendly elderly gentleman, Dr. Larry Atkinson, who expertly explained the entire pre-race preparations as we watched it all unfold. “After the war I was offered a job here in 1946,” he laughed. “And I couldn’t find my way out.” After the crash course on the sport, he pointed to the stairwell. “Go up there. It’s the jockey room. You’ll love it. Only jockeys are allowed in there, so just observe and hopefully you won’t get chased out.”
Minutes later, we were sitting in a dingy room with all the jockeys as they relaxed for the race. Two old televisions were on: one was bowling, the other races. At the end of the room was a kitchen, where we chatted up the cooks as to what jockeys eat. It’s been reported that the a large percentage of jockeys are bulimic. Looking at them, you’d agree. “They really put it away,” the cook said. “Crab cakes, turkey and ham sandwiches. Sort of shocking. But you know what will really blow you mind? Come with me.” Around the corner, through the doors, the cook led us into the jockeys’ locker room, where they put the finishing touches on saddles, ready their silks, clean the whips, text family, shower, play video games, and strut around naked. Small men naked. Pukey bathroom. Time to go.
Back out to the track, we strolled through the VIP area and tried to gain access to the infamous infield, where the debauchery goes down — Port-o-John jumping, beer can throwing, fights, nudity, lethal alcohol intake. You know, just good clean fun. A fence separates the VIP area from the infield, lending a zoo quality to the scene (Don’t poke the bear!). The Baltimore Sun describes it as “sort of like Caligula’s Rome crossed with MTV’s Spring Break, but with less attractive people. More disgusting acts are committed per square foot during the Preakness than just about anywhere else in the country. About the only thing you cannot do is fight. Also, look out for beer grenades!” Strangely, we were not allowed into the infield, probably for our own protection.
At one point, I spoke with a cute PETA publicist herding a small army protesting the alleged cruel and unusual treatment of horses. Trying my best to remain immune to her wily, lip-licking, flirty schtick, I kept thinking that I wish I had a riding crop so I could give her a good snap on the heiney. Take that! And then quickly run away.
Finally, the race. In the Winner’s Circle, the crowd stared in awe as Big Brown strutted like he just knew he’s the shit (if ever a horse had confidence, arrogance, and a whiff of superiority, he’s it). Then we planned our exit strategy, quickly breezed out the gates, careful not to collide with deathly drunks staggering through the turn styles, choking back vomit. The one-block walk to the car resembled a cracked-out Grateful Dead show: wide eyed stares, infielders covered in mud, slurring, frat boys sloppily muckling with ponytailed bimbos.
Fifty yards from the clubhouse, at a private home, a party was in full force, with free food and beer. White geeks danced side by side with black locals. Everyone danced, the music blared, and the scene took on a tribal feel. Walking past, feeling honored and blissed out to witness everything, we got clipped by a shopping cart pushed by a young black kid with a surly white frat boy slumped inside, giving orders to his driver and flipping off cops. I felt the cart hit my shins, and the kid screamed, “Get the fuck outta my way, honkey.” Then another cart wheeled up, another white kid being wheeled down the road, a regal look on his face, totally enjoying his low-rent rickshaw ride.
“How much for the ride?” we asked the driver. Two bucks.