“It’s the people’s race! It’s the people’s party! It’s the people’s event, which means a lot to the city and the state. I think the Preakness will be here in 2010 and for many years to follow.” -Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas Jr., in the Washington Post
There’s always something a little disappointing about the second installment of a trilogy. The first part is usually fresh and full of possibilities, all exposition and introductions and hobbits in the Shire. The final part, of course, is climax and conclusion, where the guy gets the girl and most of your favorite characters make it out of the battle unscathed. The middle is full of necessary evils: slow plot and character development, red herrings, and unsatisfying cliffhangers. It’s easy to argue against this on a case by case basis–I’m no “Star Wars” fan, but I enjoyed “The Empire Strikes Back” a hell of a lot more than the others—but as a general format, it often holds true, and the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, is no exception. It lacks the glamor and Southern charm of the Kentucky Derby, and it has none of the Belmont Stakes’ grim finality, something you’d expect from a longer-than-usual race held just outside of Queens. Despite its storied history and important role in the racing calendar, the Preakness seems to be more famous for drunken (and dangerous) revelry than for anything that has to do with horses.
In recent years, the Preakness infield has played host to 60,000 party-goers, armed with coolers, funnels, and inflatable beer pong tables. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching frat boys run on top of a row of porta-potties while people throw bottles and cans at them, make sure you check out the Running of the Urinals. A quick scan of the YouTube comments reveals that lots of people find this funny; Maryland racing officials didn’t. By many accounts, infield spectators were more likely to be hit with a bottle of beer or sexually assaulted than they were to see a horse race, and last year, 6 people were arrested and another 120 were ejected from the park. This pales to the behavior of one drunken spectator a decade ago, who jumped the rail in the middle of a race and tried to punch a horse as they came down the stretch. A few months ago, the Maryland Jockey Club announced a ban on all beverages, soda and water included, and they were met with mixed responses. “This is our Mardi Gras,” one man told the Baltimore Sun. “Sometimes it gets out of hand, but it’s ours.” Other fans weren’t so torn up: “It will take a couple years for the word of mouth to get out and say, ‘Look, man, it’s not as bad as it used to be,'” another man told the same reporter. “I think you’ll start getting more people coming back.” The same man also helpfully pointed out that at $3.50 a beer, you’d be less likely to chuck it across a crowd.
I’ve taken bets from all types. In September, I worked a Saturday in the restaurant bay at Belmont and punched a few thousand-dollar tickets for an impeccably dressed Bobby Flay. A few weeks later, I took the E train back out to Jamaica to work the simulcast of the Breeder’s Cup, and they put me in a bay down by the track where recent immigrants—Russians, Haitians, Dominicans, Pakistanis—placed dollar bets as they leered at me. One man asked for my hand in marriage and muttered something in Russian directly to my chest; a fellow teller later told me that some women refer to the area as the “bay of pigs.” There are three things that the majority of my customers have in common: their gender (male), their desire to put money on a horse race (strong), and their love of drinking (deep, great, unwavering). Frat boys from Long Island with overpriced cups of Budweiser; linen-suited horse owners with tall, well-garnished cocktails. At the Belmont Stakes a few years ago, four guys dressed in identical Uncle Sam costumes accidentally spilled the contents of an over-sized lemonade glass all over me and my machine. From the smell of it, it was three parts whiskey, one part lemonade.
For all the whining, anger, and threats of boycott over the alcohol ban, booze wasn’t particularly hard to find on Saturday. Black Eyed Susan sellers walked around with trays of drinks strapped around their necks, popcorn seller-style, hawking orange juice based-cocktails that contain both vodka and rum. In an effort to capitalize on the Preakness’s long history of binge drinking, Pimlico offered a “Breakfast Special”: $1 beers from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. I looked up from counting my money just after 9:30 and saw a customer at the next window over flipping through the program with a half-empty glass of beer in his hand. “Who do you like, honey?” he asked the teller next to me, his voice a little too loud. Just a few minutes earlier my neighbor had complained about walking into the park and seeing dozens of drunks passed out on the grass. “Don’t walk alone around here,” she told me. “This is the hood.” She lives in Crown Heights, far from the safest neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I took her warning seriously. “Let me see,” she said, taking the program from the customer and scanning the odds. He took a long swig of beer, leaned over the counter, and winked at me. I knew then that we were in for a long day.
I’ve been an employee of the New York Racing Association for the past seven years. Last Saturday marked my first time working at a track outside of New York state, and it was stressful at first, learning a brand new (shoddy, antiquated) system on one of the biggest racing days of the year. But my customers—and their bets—were ordinary enough. I missed a few ethnic groups that make up my core customer base at Saratoga and Belmont—Italians and Mexicans, mostly (Catholics love me)—but it was a pretty typical crowd for a big race day: lots of tourists in golf clothes and big flowery hats, blushing and tentative early on, asking us to explain even the simplest bets, and giddy and drunk towards the end, betting way more than they cash and occasionally realizing that it’s polite to tip your teller. And it was strange: the recession has entered everyone’s vernacular, and even though I feel it acutely every day, as a Manhattan editor and as a parimutuel, I wasn’t expecting to think of it so much at the Preakness. But I did, because it just felt like people were betting beyond their means. I took in so much cash, and I handed so little of it back. And the numbers proved my gut instinct: attendance was cut by about a third, from 112,222 to 77,850, but the handle—the amount of money the track takes in bets—was up by about $13 million. The logical explanation: the tens of thousands that usually spend all day throwing beer cans instead of betting were absent. The emotional response: people are getting a little bit desperate, and betting a whole lot more.
It might be the economy, or it might be a natural progression of things: on any day but Preakness day, Pimlico Racecourse is failing. ESPN shows footage of an average afternoon at the track, which has drastically cut its season to twenty racing days in the spring. You can see it in the physical structures of the track itself, with its dingy grandstand and crumbling facilities. There’s been talk of moving the Preakness to Maryland’s other track, Laurel Park, or of moving it out of Maryland all together. In March, the owner of both tracks, Magna Entertainment, filed for bankruptcy, and many of the state’s officials—including the governor—were quick to defend Laurel and Pimlico and promise future Maryland Preaknesses. The ban on alcohol was seen by some as a particuarly low blow to the few remaining loyal fans, and the resulting re-branding of the event as “The People’s Race” didn’t really help the situation.
Rachel Alexandra, though, gave the crowd a collective boost. The first filly to win the race in 85 years, she was a popular bet, but far from a sure thing. An oafish man in striped button down came to my window and put down $20 on “the lady.” “The 13 in the 12th race?” I asked to confirm, and he nodded. “Yeah, I’m rootin’ for the lady.” I looked him up and down and said primly, “That’s a very positive feminist statement,” and started to count out his change. There was a long silence as I placed twenties on my machine, and then he muttered, “I mean, it’s not that feminist.” He sounded a little horrified. Unlike some female commentators, I don’t see much point in claiming Rachel Alexandra’s victory as one for all womankind; if she was ridden by a female jockey, maybe female-owned and trained, then we’d have some gender equality to celebrate. But it was a great race—exhillarating, down to the wire, the kind of race that you go to a track to see, to hold your breath as you grip your tickets. I cashed hundreds of tickets after that race, people flushed and beaming, seasoned gamblers and novice tourists alike. For many, racing is about the horses. For me and my fellow tellers, it’s about the people. Pimlico would be well-served to remember this when—if—they run the next People’s Race.