If “The Hangover” series of films taught the world anything, it’s that the best parties are the ones that take weeks to get your life back together afterward.
As arguably the biggest party on the racing calendar, the events surrounding the 2011 Preakness Stakes could definitely find themselves in that conversation.
This is the excuse I’m going with to explain my dithering in writing my Preakness weekend retrospective. When you’re running with the Wolfpack, there isn’t always time to write.
It took a grand total of 17 hours on the road to get from Michigan to Baltimore, factoring in a detour to Lexington to carpool the rest of the way with Thoroughbred Times editor Ed DeRosa. I was working as something of a utility man for the publication during the Preakness and the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale that followed.
After a trip through eastern Kentucky, West Virginia (which reminds me of Montana if everyone was really into pollution) and western Maryland, we arrived in Baltimore a few hours before the Preakness post position draw.
This trip marked my first visit to Pimlico Race Course, and Maryland in general, so the track layout was uncharted territory on my internal map. Fortunately, the first sight that fell before me as I walked on the property was the Preakness stakes barn. All of the horses shipping in to run in the Preakness were under one roof. After spending the aftermath of last year’s Kentucky Derby roaming Churchill Downs’ expansive backstretch seeking quotes from connections, a barn like this was a boon for a lazy journalist such as myself. What a beautiful building it was.
The plant itself was not quite as beautiful. Pimlico has typically gotten a bad rap for not aging well, and it is not entirely unwarranted. The facilities had definitely seen better days, even after the obligatory “Preakness Cleanup”.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of this was the media elevator, which used technology that probably pre-dated anyone on the grounds. It didn’t smell the best, either, but employees seemed to blame a fresh coat of paint for that. Personally, I have never experienced a paint with that particular odor, but it made me feel sorry for the elevator attendant.
The elevator led to the press box on the top floor. More so than Churchill Downs or Keeneland Race Course (I haven’t worked in a lot of press boxes, okay?), the Pimlico box is the closest I have come to what the average person might imagine a racetrack press box to be – rows upon rows of desks pointing toward nothing in particular, where everybody is within shouting distance and nothing is shiny. If one removed the HDTVs from the walls and replaced the laptops with typewriters, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume the reporters were covering a race decades ago instead of in the present day.
Initially, I was a little turned off by the press box. Mind you, I am a small track guy, so it was not that it wasn’t “nice” enough. Where I come from, we don’t even have press boxes. I was just underwhelmed for a track hosting one of the world’s most important races. However, once I figured out what parts of the desks to avoid, lest I get splinters, I eventually learned to embrace the Pimlico media room. By the end of the weekend, I even grew to like it a bit. Further proof that I should never trust my first impression on anything.
Prior to the Preakness draw, I headed back to the stakes barn to film any potential contenders that should arrive as they exit their trailers. The best I could find was the trailer of D. Wayne Lukas, who had fringe contender Saratoga Red. Barring some kind of major surprise, the horse wasn’t going to draw into the race, so he wasn’t a terribly high priority.
As the Lukas horses unloaded, the trainer came over and chatted with the members of the media waiting outside his barn. He spun a tale to them about a time when he was not allowed in the paddock of a major racetrack (which I choose to remain unnamed to protect everyone involved) after handing out all of his paddock passes. Apparently, some security guards don’t recognize a hall-of-fame trainer when they see one.
After Lukas headed on his way, I checked my phone and saw that the draw was about to start, so I hi-tailed it to the infield.
I had my camera in tow from this point on, so I’m going to let the pictures do the talking. The rest of the story can be found behind the jump…
The Preakness draw was held under a tent/gazebo in the Pimlico infield. Getting there meant taking a platform across the racing surfaces. Though I did not have time to appreciate it on the way in, I later likened this experience to standing on a boat in the middle of a lake. It was a view that mortals were not supposed to enjoy, but was made possible thanks to a few pieces of wood used creatively.
Baltimore was in the midst of a rain-filled week, which turned heavily-trodden grass into mud trails. I did not pay this much mind in my haste, and paid for it with muddy pants.
The draw was just about to commence when I reached the gazebo door. It was a cocktails and hors d’oeuvres event, with representatives from each entry’s camp in attendance. At this point, the novelty factor has still yet to wear off from seeing so many racing celebrities concentrated in the same area, but I’d like to think I have mastered the old sports adage of “act like you been there before.” Clearly, I had to make an exception for Kegasus, Lord of the Infield Fest, but that’s a story for next time.
The draw itself was fairly quick and to-the-point. Numbers were called, horses were named and the process was repeated. Between the announcements, I often found myself wondering about the attractive women holding the placards showing the location of each group of connections (and clearly, I still do). Who were these women? Local models for hire? Track employees? How much does one get paid to hold a sign for a couple hours in a crowded gazebo? Were their arms tired? Did they get hit on very much, or was this event too high-class (and too heavily canvassed by the media) for debauchery? Wouldn’t a weighted pole with the sign on top be just about as effective and more cost-efficient? I don’t know why my brain does what it does at times like these. Part of me doesn’t want to find out.
After the draw, I proceeded to shove Ed’s Flip camera in the face of anyone worth filming, including Team Valor honcho Barry Irwin, pictured above. Yes, I was filming and shooting at the same time. The connections’ tables were spaced rather close together, so a bit of boxing out was necessary to ensure a decent spot in terms of picking up sound and getting the shot.
Fortunately, Team Animal Kingdom (the group everyone really wanted to talk to following their Kentucky Derby victory two weeks prior) was spaced out well enough to avoid any claustrophobia-induced outbreaks.
Trainer Graham Motion, pictured above, was probably the MVP of the weekend in terms of cordiality with the media. He handled himself professionally at every turn, even after the race, and provided good information. He is one of the few people in the racing industry of which I have heard few, if any complaints from fans, media or others in the business. That kind of respect is hard to come by.
After grabbing some footage of the Kentucky Derby winners, Ed and I ventured out to speak with the other connections. Off the top of my head, I remember speaking with Chris Grove, trainer of Norman Asbjornson, and Bob Baffert, who brought Midnight Interlude.
After the draw festivities came to a close, we headed back to the grandstand. This provided me the time I originally lacked to take in my surroundings and freak out about being in the middle of Baltimore, under a horse-shaped weather vane that looks like Lookin At Lucky, about to be a part of one of the sport’s biggest events. Again, outside of my tourist-like camera wielding, I’d like to think I did a good job of “acting like I’ve been there before”. All of this restrained freaking out will probably lead to ulcers someday, but if you’re not worrying yourself sick, you’re probably not working hard enough.
The infield was probably more visually appealing than the grandstand side. In a way, this makes sense. The people in the grandstands had to look at it all day, and the population in the infield largely consisted of casual fans who might be swayed by some nice foliage, a shady tent and some grass under their feet.
The following day took us to Fair Hill Training Center, Animal Kingdom’s home base. Fair Hill is lauded as one of the country’s premiere training centers, and for good reason. Positioned about an hour north of Baltimore, Fair Hill is seclusion wrapped in seclusion. The property itself is well off the beaten path, and the trainer’s barns are further separated by patches of wooded areas, hills, and grass. No distractions from the outside world, and darned nice to look at.
While the horses made their rounds on the track (for those of you wondering, the inner track was Tapeta Footings), we made our way to a building situated next to the training track. As it turns out, we were far from the only ones there to see the classic winner take the track. Noted author and equine welfare activist Alex Brown was out on the patio, as were photographers Matt and Wendy Wooley.
Eventually, Motion made his way to the oval with a group of horses in tow, including Animal Kingdom. He dispensed instructions as each horse and rider passed through the chute and onto the track.
Bringing up the rear was the Kentucky Derby winner. The rail became quite populated when Animal Kingdom took to the track, especially for a secluded area.
Another shot of Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom stood on the track for a good while as the other horses made their way by. It felt a little out of place to see a Preakness contender’s saddlecloth off the Pimlico grounds, but I’ve got no problem with taking advantage of a home field advantage. Judging by his solid performance in the Preakness, it didn’t hurt him any.
I’d like to show you a nice shot of Animal Kingdom taking his morning jog, but my camera decided to take an early lunch as he went by and refused to focus. Awesome.
Fortunately, my camera got up off the mat in time to catch Animal Kingdom on his way back to the barn. After he went by, Ed and I headed to the Motion barn to chat with the trainer. Again, class all the way.
After departing from Fair Hill, Ed and I found a distributor of caffeinated beverages and Wi-Fi on the University of Delaware campus to type up stories and upload photos and video.
Preakness weekend had already produced a litany of new and exciting experiences, and I hadn’t even seen a race. Business was about to pick up the next day, with Black-Eyed Susan day and beyond.
But that’s another story for another day.