It’s not about the ponies, it’s never been about the ponies, and it never will be.
The Preakness Stakes is unadulterated idiocracy, fermented at a damn-near molecular level, on an extravagant stage of self-abandon. It’s a place where inhibitions go to die, where long-dormant sins find defibrillators, where moderation posts up in the corner and waits for someone, anyone, to ask it to dance.
It sticks out, surviving as its own entity, a Xanadu of excess that manifests in the dilapidated confines of Baltimore. The quote-unquote problematic socioeconomic and political undercurrents here aren’t lost on anyone*–really, you’d have to be fitted with blinders to ignore them–but all in all, the race’s presence foments nothing malicious. Besides the final stretch of the drive into Pimlico Race Course, we don’t see much of the city, just a handful of streets lined with entrepreneurial folks trying to earn a buck from the droves of racegoers. The contrast hits hard, those with minds scheming to make money so neatly juxtaposed with those showing a brazen disregard for fiduciary conscientiousness.
Luckily, at this point most folks on our bus aren’t displaying any form of conscientiousness, so little heed is paid to this disparate situation. Soon enough, we’re deposited inside the premises, given our marching orders, and following a brief delay as one of the undercard races completes–the only time that actual horse racing infringes upon our delightful Saturday–we’re in the infield.
The dirty little secret about the Preakness, or at least the subhuman component of the Preakness that is InfieldFest, is that you’re paying to see not a lot of anything. The name/rank/serial number of the “festival” is free beer, appropriately lukewarm performances from Childish Gambino and Armin Van Buuren, and general food atrocities like the Crab Pretzel, which I hope to Christ is banned in most of the continental U.S. Noticeably absent from the list is horse racing, which, when paired with betting houses, represents just another potential sinkhole in our wallets, cleaving us from our money with the allure of the transcendental Superfecta. No, in commodified terms, the value of the Preakness simply isn’t there; rather, it earns its billing through the most priceless of arts: people-watching.
Because by taking a literal spin around the grounds of the infield–and there’s a good chance you’re spinning for one reason or another–you’re apt to see humanity at both its worst and its Holy Sh*t Worst. You’ll see folks passed out, folks throwing up, folks deciding just which one of these is the path for them. Dancing happens, in some form at least, arms and legs moving in a manner that could diplomatically be described as “uncoordinated.” Not to mention the cult-like banging of pink cups, proof of one’s admission to the free beer pavilion, the arhythmic jangling on the railings as you wait in line for another serving of Up For Whatever lager.
The attire, which obviously bears mentioning since we’re at a horse race, is easily bucketed into subsections, representing the predominant forms of assholery in the general populace. Roughly speaking, it’s one part throwback jerseys, one part comfort wear, one part classy and a final dose of “classy.” I’m in the final category, boasting suspenders, bow tie, and fedora, looking like a cross between off-brand Oktoberfest and a bit player in There Will Be Blood. My compadre, similarly clownishly dressed, and I spend the afternoon eying the crowd for our doppelgangers, snapping the suspenders of any fools who wander in our vicinity. By the end of the day, we finally meet two folks who are wearing their suspenders in perhaps a more supportive manner than is necessary, and they waste no time explaining–in pretty graphic terms–exactly what they’re supporting.
But that’s really it–this is how we spend our afternoon, a whirlwind of stupidity and marveling at even greater stupidity. We spend time satisfying needs that Maslow would consider “pretty basic” or “completely unnecessary.” We take the little–nay, negative–betting knowledge we have and formulate the most complicated bets possible. With a bit of time to spare, we make our way to the final turn of the track, hedging our bets to see a fair amount of a moderately crucial part of the race, about the best one can hope for in the infield.
Then, rain. And thunder and lightning. We head for a food tent, first being told that we can’t stand there as “they’ll have to let everyone stand there,” then watching as the vendors eventually let everyone do just that. It’s intimate, a bunch of soaked, strangely-clad individuals trying to find the parts of the tarp that aren’t actively leaking to then stand under. We witness poor souls stranded underneath a tiny tent in the middle of the infield, first gathering there, then making the executive decision to drag the structure underneath the umbrella of a parent tent.
This is all a prelude to the most spontaneous moment of the afternoon, when we see on the videotron the horses being led out onto the slop, loaded into the gates, and then, following the bell, turned loose on the course. We take a moment to realize the implications of this, then sprint back to the final turn in the driving rain, catching the horses as they thunder around the bend, an anonymous blur of jockey pastels and kinetic energy. It’s a brief sweep, and we run alongside and then behind the horses, maximizing our time and adjacency to greatness, joyous and fluid on the trodden grass under the now-purple sky.
And like that, it’s all over. We gather our things–bow tie, suspenders and all–and pile back on the bus. The return trip bleeds away, everyone exhausted and shells of their morning selves, Baltimore left in the rearview. The day’s a marathon and a flash, full of everything and devoid of importance. I don’t feel shortchanged, though, as I was never promised a life-changing experience. Much like American Pharoah’s coasting to victory, the day ran true to expectations–no deeper meaning lay hidden inside the walls of Pimlico, and perhaps the simplest phrase is the best way to describe it.
The Preakness Stakes: it is what it is what it is.
*It’s almost obligatory to mention these events in a blog post revolving around Baltimore, but it’s a hard sensation to miss, that omnipresent queasiness given the locational and temporal proximity to the recent events in the city. The thought that a few miles from the scene where Freddie Gray was fatally assaulted, from where the resulting protests brewed and spilled over, the Establishment could get together and throw Itself a party, no holds barred, the only risk to health and general wellness being whether one could hold his liquor. It’s not objectively wrong to do so, and I didn’t expect the city to postpone or move a race of this magnitude. There’s a gulf of difference, however, between objectively wrong and out-of-touch, and the presence of the race here gives the impression that the purveyors of White Privilege woke up, poked their heads around a little, and then decidedly returned to the lodgings in their own respective assholes.