There is a certain afterglow of attending the huge races, but following a year of hiding out in my basement live streaming vicariously through the few brave souls who put on their best fashionable hazmat attire and attended dystopian race-land, Saturday felt like being reborn.
There were only ten thousand people at Pimlico for the 146th Preakness Stakes (and if I’m being honest, slimming the crowd was a huge positive) so while that wasn’t the mega frat party I was accustomed to, just seeing faces under fascinators was, well, almost fascinating. A tip of the cap to the CDC who altered their mask wearing policy for us vaccinated folks right before post time.
I fashioned together a look. The whole “getting dressed up” thing felt like something I did in another life, and honestly I wasn’t sure how to confidently do that after a year of pants-optional Zoom life. And upon arrival at the Turfside Terrace, it appeared most others had figured it out as well. The reflection from “the others” was happiness – sheer general happiness.
At events like the Preakness, you will invariably find all walks of life with all purposes for attending. Some want to get blasted. Some just want to be part of a giant party. Some want to sidle up to the wealth and glamour and others just want to bet on the big one. It’s what makes these days so very unusual. It’s like five different house parties converged. And what was so special about yesterday was that it happened, seamlessly. One minute I’m eating crab cakes and short ribs deciding between a Black-Eyed susan or a vodka soda. The next minute I’m watching 2 Chainz as if a South Beach pool party landed in the middle of a field. Walk 20 yards another direction and a Ralph Lauren-inspired tent is hosting the exclusive club. Cross back into the clubhouse and the race crowd is gearing up for the 7th with everyone’s opinion heard loud and clear, not muffled by a mask.
The Preakness was my coming-out party. But that made sense for me, a Maryland-bred show pony who talks for a living and has experienced every option an event like the Preakness has to offer. Years back, I’d have been a candidate to be an honorary Kegasus. Years later, I’m fortunate to have access to those tent parties and the winner’s circle.
And yesterday was partially a goodbye to Pimlico as I and others know it. I spoke with David Wilson, CMO of 1/ST, and he described the facility as needing “some love” – which is the understatement of the year. Dilapidated is not far from the truth. For years I wondered if that Preakness would be the last Preakness in Maryland, but that isn’t what’s in the ether anymore. It’s modernization. And what happened yesterday showed me – a staunch, ardent defender of Maryland racing and the tradition of the Preakness – that the future is in safe hands. All of those elements that made the Preakness one of the most unique cultural sporting events were intact even with the challenges of 2021 and ever-changing protocols.
Maybe it’s that I’m older and carrying a keg through the infield tunnel doesn’t appeal to me anymore, but the lack of the rager didn’t take away anything from the experience. The concert was held with socially distant pods and it felt exclusive. The tents didn’t have as many invitees but the air of fashion, fame and money still was palpable. The facility couldn’t be used to capacity by order of the state of Maryland, but it was dressed with signage that sent a message that this is back, we are back, and it matters.
Then, jumping in on an exploding marketplace that is intended to draw in younger fans on days after the party, an exclusive NFT market was created where a newly-minted collectible off Rombauer’s Preakness win was up for auction within minutes.
Pimlico may not look the same when I go there again (that’s a good thing). The plot of land won’t feel the same (many acres are being sold off as part of the modernization plan) and that may or may not change the wildest infield party in the world. But, here’s what I know, and maybe some of this is just getting out and being social in an environment I’ve valued being a part of my entire life. This day was everything I needed in every way. And knowing that the pandemic offered an opportunity to reassess everything, it appears that in Maryland, the future of the event, the marketplace, the fans and the sport are items that are being taken seriously. And the best part is, all of it isn’t happening over Zoom anymore.